putting thoughts into words regarding the entangled state of mind which is my existence

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Il y a un immeuble caché

Où on peut rencontre la peur
Il saute à travers des fenêtres
Qui descende comme un glaçon
Les voisins ne la verront jamais
Ils savent qu’il subsiste
Mais ils ne la trouveraient jamais
Elle escroquât les gens leur pain du jour
Comment elle nous piquons
Et fait démanger notre modèles
“Sans espoir et sans regret“
Dehors de la sensibilité parfait
Où nous souhaitassions naître
Dans un rêve, notre confortable sommeil
Est-ce que vouz rappelez la raison
La raison d’être de la peur
Je voudrais y décrire
Mais elle chuchote
Chaque mot tombe au loin
Et atterrit autour du porche
Il a coincé à la arrière
De mon esprit
Alors, je ne comprends aucune qu’elle me dit
Mais vous devez essayer me croire
Quand je vous previens
Elle déménage toujours
Et elle ne reste place
N’importe pas laquelle personne

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Can we act for reasons we don’t have?

In recent developments in action theory, there have been two major philosophers who have disagreed over the specific questions of the nature of reasons that one has to act, and whether these reasons are traceable to an individual’s motives. On the one hand, Bernard Williams suggests that all reasons one has for acting are reasons given that they derive themselves from elements from the individual’s inner motivations – or subjective motivational set (S) (which includes her: desires, wants, values, commitments, etc.) This is the internalist approach to reasons. On the other hand, John McDowell argues against Williams with the opposite interpretation. He believes that there are reasons that are untraceable, or outside of, one’s existing motivations, which yet and still act as reasons for the agent’s action. This is the externalist position. These views are clearly mutually exclusive because of the fact that an individual is relying on his S to produce reasons in one case and not in the other. While this may be so, I will show that McDowell’s contention with Williams over the possibility of external reasons is a good one, and furthermore makes the notion of an external reason more plausible. I will also increase the conceivability of one’s having an external reason by demonstrating how that these allow for one to perform certain kinds of actions that wouldn’t be otherwise possible under an internalist approach – thus giving a more holistic picture of action.

The contention alluded to above between Williams and McDowell is based, in large part, on the idea of how an individual can be moved to form the belief that she has an external reason. Williams holds that any reason one has for potentially being motivated to act in a certain way must arise through rational means, which he calls deliberation. As Williams point out in his paper entitled Internal and External Reasons, deliberation is of the “rational processes, [that] can give rise to new motivations,” (Williams, 108). What he means here is that, by reflecting on one’s S in a way that advances some of its aspects while at the same time pushes back others, the agent redefines her motives by producing new beliefs as to what is a proper reason for her to be guided by in action, in light of this deliberation.

Applying this notion of deliberation to external reasoning, then, Williams would go on to say that if an individual was to be moved to form a belief regarding an external reason, deliberation would have to be the necessary pathway for the belief to be thought of as rational. But the trouble presents itself when one attempts to conduct this deliberation since, at the time of deliberation, the individual cannot consult her current S in acquiring such a belief. Again, this is because an external reason is brought about independently of any reference to an agent’s S, and therefore precludes any deliberative route to forming the belief.

McDowell enters the argument by writing a written response piece to Williams called Might There Be External Reasons? McDowell, essentially charged with irrationality for favoring an externalist position, responds to Williams by suggesting that deliberation need not be the sole means by which one can have an external reason for acting. McDowell emphasizes that it is the end result of having the belief in an external reason that matters; not necessarily the pathway or means to getting to this conclusion. Using William’s terminology, McDowell would argue that the matter can still be “considered aright” (Williams, 109) regardless of how the belief concerning an external reason is formed, since the conclusion that was arrived at (the belief) was a true conclusion (McDowell, 72-73). In other words, an individual who has “considered the matter aright” is one who has established reasons-beliefs from which one is motivated to always act in the right way; similarly to if she had rationally deliberated. These reasons are in line with serving a motivation that, by its expression through action, fulfills their goal in any given situation.

Instead of resorting to an agent’s deliberative route for forming the foundation of the beliefs for an external reason, McDowell proposes a few alternatives that he thinks serve just as well in bringing about this belief. A couple notable examples he uses are: a religious conversion and/or inspiration from rhetoric. Albeit that all of these examples are irrational (McDowell, 74), they still, in his view, make it so that an individual can arrive at the belief pertaining to the external reason. Specifically, the individual, through any one of these kinds of experiences, transitions from a state of not being motivated by an external reason to being motivated by it (McDowell, 74), because each of these provide a means for her to gloss over her existing S in the process of forming the belief relevant to the external reason. In the wake of undergoing such a radically self-altering experience, the individual becomes enamored by a new belief that would ordinarily not be said to have belonged to her prior to her conversion. This belief, again, isn’t rationally explicable, yet it works in her favor if it leads her to see, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the “matter aright” and furthermore enables her to become motivated by the external reason.

My take on McDowell’s objection to Williams is that it succeeds in distinguishing between what one has reason to do, in virtue of whom one is, and what one has reason to do, in virtue of what is ultimately reasonable. By reasonable, I am entertaining the idea that there are reasons that are simply right reasons for acting, despite one’s desire to be motivated by them or not. For example, if an anti-patriotic, cowardly man was faced with the choice of either staying with his family during wartime by means of performing illegal activities or enlist in the draft that mandates him to serve, the man would plausibly have no inherent motivations that would be satisfied by his act of going to war. Let’s presume here that he knows that his entering into the army will result in certain, immediate death on the front-line. Nothing in him would suggest that he cares to die for his country or wants to be instantaneously killed (hence, his anti-patriotism and cowardliness), so his S doesn’t contain any elements that would serve as precursors to his forming a reason to be motivated to go to war. Yet this is what he does because of the fact that it serves a universal purpose that is reasonable beyond himself and even his country. In other words, despite not personally having any motivations that would be furthered by his development of such a reason, the man, in a profound sense, still reasons to go to war – being motivated by a reason that could be said to be external to him.

What this example and McDowell’s interpretation of external reasons are obviously assuming to be true is a normative, objective standard concerning reasons (McDowell, 76). That is to say that the external reasons that an individual is led to believe as being her reason (through a conversion or what have you) is a reason that is prescribed to be authoritative and telling of a right or wrong reason for action. This is its normative component. An external reason is seen to be objective since it derives itself outside of an individual’s S – it takes something above and beyond the subjectivity of the individual’s psychology to form the reason. I will now briefly illustrate how these assumptions in the externalist position are vital in overcoming a few limitations that I see under the internalist description of reasons.

McDowell’s defense of external reasons is ultimately successful in rebutting William’s objection that external reasons cannot be deliberated upon – and hence, are irrationally formed – not because he defends his view from this claim (because he does not), but rather because McDowell shows that, in a more significant sense, rationality becomes incumbent on an individual only in the course of her being brought to have an external reason. Williams could argue that his theory also allows for internal reasons to contain an element of rationality in virtue of their being followed, by the consistent traceability of the reasons from aspects of the individual’s S. But what makes this story incomplete are these cases, such as the example of the drafted soldier above, where with no matter how much time the individual spends deliberating, her S still cannot encompass certain reasons for being motivated to act in selfless, universal ways that owe themselves to an external standard. This is of course supposing that the particular individual does not already have generosity, in any way, subsumed within her S. An agent, following from William’s argument, cannot come to be motivated by reasons that serve an absolute good that is beyond what she takes good to be.

It is plain to me here that, although McDowell does assume controversial standards of objectivity and normativity in his belief of what characterizes external reasons, the resulting view of external reasons does a better job of explaining the facts, since it is able to explain the reasons behind more observable kinds of action that one can take. This is opposed to the internalist interpretation which, by making reasons out to be contingent upon one’s own psychology, consequently severely reduces one’s ability to understand why an agent acts a certain way when he is observed to act out of character. Surely one has had the experience of witnessing such an instance. It would seem that, in these scenarios then, the internalist could not supply any good reason whatsoever for the agent’s being motivated as he was. His “action” may have to be rendered a mere happening or occurrence for this reason. This type of situation is a strike against the internalist, in that it demonstrates incoherence in his theory of explaining the reasons for action. In consideration of this stumbling block, plus the quantitative advantage of explaining cases of universal acts, the externalist view should be granted as more plausible.  The deciding point that I am trying to make here is that, in addition to internal reasons, external reasons portray a more comprehensive, holistic picture of action. It is in the light of having this quality that actually bolsters the plausibility of there being external reasons.

In conclusion, I have first examined the philosophical rift between McDowell and Williams over the nature of reasons in order to provide a foundation for my argument of the plausibility of the existence of external reasons. It has been seen that Williams contention of a reason’s formation being irrational if it lies outside of deliberation is irrelevant for McDowell, because the latter has responded in a way that elucidated a sense of rationality that is above which Williams could muster from within the internalist position. However it be that McDowell’s species of rationality stems from his assumption regarding the objective/normative standards inherent in external reasons, this assumption manifests a quantitative explanatory advantage that cannot be dismissed; it rationalizes the observable facts of action better than the internalist can from his account. From this argument, I have developed an account of external reasons which should push the internalist to concede to their increased conceivability.

The Paradox of Reasonably Choosing

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the question of choice. Is it always rational, or informed by sound reasoning? It seems that, usually, yes, when taken seriously. We know that making choices is what life’s all about, and there is therefore a demand put on our shoulders to carefully consider each one, weighing out the consequences and reasons for all of our potential actions. But what happens when you find yourself in a situation where one possible choice you could make is exactly as good as another? How do you decide on what’s right?

This question has famously been presented by a philosopher named John Buridan, who formulated the thought experiment known as Buridan’s Ass. In it, we have a hungry donkey put between two equally portioned heaps of hay. The donkey never chooses to eat from either heap, since there is no clear-cut reason which it can think of to eat from one over the other. They’re exactly the same, so the poor donkey never actually even makes a move and eventually starves. This can be put into the following paradox: The donkey is rational in choosing to stand its ground, although it is seemingly unable to make a rational choice.

Now Michael Hauskeller, in his article in Philosophy Now (linked in the title above), wants to first abstract this talk away from donkeys. We’re obviously not worried about whether or not we’d see the bizarre spectacle of a donkey torn over what it should eat. It will just eat. This is because it doesn’t deliberate, or take reasons for its action into consideration and critically evaluate these before acting. But we do. At least most of the time. Hauskeller furthermore thinks there are two explanations for our eventual behavior when confronted with a Buridan’s Ass scenario:

a) we act for a reason, but this reason is not apparent to us at the time

b) we act for no reason, whatsoever


It seems that he is right on this point. If we think about it in terms of an example, we see that someone who finds herself faced with having to choose between two equally paying jobs with equally attractive locations, workloads, benefit packages and opportunities for advancement will potentially choose because of an underlying affinity toward something which struck her about her employer in her interview. However it may be that this is true, it does not factor into her deliberation. Or she might as well flip a coin, letting it decide for her, because there is nothing better or worse about working in New York rather than in LA. But whatever it is, remember that she has to choose. The real question that this is ultimately getting at is whether or not we are really acting rationally if we go with a) in understanding our decision. I will now try to defend Hauskeller’s premise of choosing for unapparent reasons from a revision of the paradox which I made earlier which seems to threaten the notion.

The issue here is regarding how far we wish to extend the definition of reason to cover the situations in which these are not apparent. Reason is brought into question because, with this new paradox, the woman with two equally good job offers is, in one sense, unreasonable for blindly following her intuition, while in another sense, reasonable for making a choice that will provide her a sustainable income. She is therefore being unreasonable for choosing to go with an unapparent reason. If we consider the favorable impression as an overriding influence on her intuition, this would then be the unapparent reason which she had. Recall that it is unapparent simply because she did not deliberate on it; it did not act as an explicit reason which impacted her making her decision. But then the question becomes whether this sort of jargon that Hauskeller brings up should even be mentioned in the same breath as reason. As I’ve said before, it seems that deliberating necessarily involves critically evaluating reasons. Since an unapparent reason cannot be evaluated, the complaint which can be made then is that it would seem that they are also outsiders in the causal picture of human agency which most of us would visualize.

But we need not go that far, because the truth is we’re just wrong. We’re wrong in thinking of the human agent as a descriptive set of his beliefs, desires, motivations, etc. We must rather think of agency as a process, in that our reasons are, interestingly enough, often understood after we have already chosen, already acted. This is a popular solution that many, including I, would advocate here. We can have unapparent reasons simply because there are instances where life suddenly forces itself on us – like a fallen oak tree falling upon the surrounding vegetation – and demands us to choose now and think why we chose later. As strange as it may seem, we are still being rational for choosing the things we do, just not in the traditional sense of the word. Our motivations are shaped by our actions, rather than our actions by our motivations. Motivation is signified as a destination which we arrive at through our choices.

This is what justifies Hauskeller’s notion of unapparent reasons and defeats the paradox. From this interpretation which I have constructed, we can see that the paradox is just a misconception born out of the traditional observation of seeing the end products of deliberation as a choice. Therefore, unbeknownst to her, the woman is reasonably choosing the right job for her, for a definite reason which only then has the appearance of being a stroke of intuition. She is being completely reasonable in choosing based on her unapparent reasons.

Regardless of how tautological the outcome of this exercise may appear to be, I think there is a degree of value which couldn’t be had unless a conscious effort was made in analyzing the problem from a different perspective. I love the intrigue of paradox, and seeing the invitation present itself here is just another interesting opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct a dynamic puzzle. A chance to look at life in a whole new light.

So although this question is a little more than slightly absurd for the donkey, I think that it is worthwhile for those of us who are faced with real choices. Understanding this is useful in making sense of some of life’s crazy little lemmas.

Think about this the next time you have to choose whose home and company you want to share your time with for a casual family dinner. Believe me, you will understand what I mean and why I bring it up when you have made up your mind after getting to that point!