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

Can we act for reasons we don’t have?

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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.


Author: theendlessknot3d

I'm Mark. I recently graduated college with a Bachelor's Degree in philosophy, and I started this blog to continue engaging myself and my mind through my passion for written argumentation. I have also used this as an opportunity to explore my other creative outlets, such as writing French poems or photography. In this blog you will find a wide range of written material, including philosophy articles, musings, paradoxes, poems, photos and more. You'll find that I usually write about serious themes, such as everyday life struggles, in a way in which I always try to keep my posts upbeat and interesting. With anything that I write, I encourage you to make your own criticisms, insights, recommendations or anything else which you feel would help me improve my content.

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