Tuesday, May 31, 2005
Seidman on reflection and rational endorsement
The reflective structure of her consciousness gives an agent the capacity to turn her attention not just onto the world, but also onto the beliefs, desires, and other mental states which the world causes her to have. And the reflective structure of her consciousness gives an agent the capacity to distance herself from these mental states, and to ask whether she ought to endorse them -- whether she has good reason to harbor them, and to allow them to inform her deliberaation about what to do or what to believe. This is an instance of what Korsgaard calls "the Normative Question". The problem which the capacity to ask the Normative Question poses, Korsgaard argues, is the problem of mustering the resources to answer this question in a rationally satisfying way -- the problem, as Korsgaard sees it, of finding the grounds to justify allowing some mental state to inform one's deliberation. If we allow our deliberation to be shaped by mental states which we cannot justify, Korsgaard claims, then we are less than fully rational.
Seidman's project in his paper is to show that Korsgaard has placed the justificatory bar too high. As the passage above makes clear, Korsgaard maintains that an agent has failed to be rational whenever the agent cares about something without having good reason for doing so. Seidman argues that this standard should be weakened to say that an agent violates rational norms just in case the agent continues to care despite having good reason not to.
As the tenor of my recent posts may indicate, I'm inclined to side with Seidman on the large question here. Korsgaard's view, it seems to me, alienates the agent from her empirical self and in so doing commits us to a misdescription of much of what is important in human life. That said, I think Seidman's gloss of Korsgaard contains a serious omission and that this omission prevents him from really engaging Korsgaard's thought. The key here is that for Korsgaard the difficulty isn't just that we might turn out to be 'less than fully rational', but that insofar as we fall short of rationality we fail to constitute ourselves as agents. In underselling the depth of Korsgaard's concern, Seidman avoids accepting the burden of showing that his alternative standard resolves Korsgaard's underlying worry. As such, the argument he presents doesn't really amount to a (direct) challenge to her view.
But that's all scholarship, and if politics is applesauce then scholarship is no better than horseradish. In the remainder of this post I'll look at Seidman's argument on its own terms without worrying whether it amounts to an effective rejoinder to Korsgaard.
In talking about practical rationality, Seidman's most basic analytic commitment is to a particular conceptual claim about what he calls 'concerns.' The claim is that "an agent's concerns dispose her to regard certain features of her environment as giving her reasons for action." So understood, concerns are the ground for an agent's first order reasons and generally, to use Seidman's words, 'comprise the background against which she deliberates.' The problem, as Seidman sees it, is to show that there is no rational failure involved in having a concern which has not been ratified by a process of rational deliberation. He takes this to be a question about when concerns require justification and his central contention is that they don't require justification unless some kind of challenge has been raised.
Seidman's general strategy in establishing this contention is to argue "that for someone who harbours a given concern, and who has no pressing reason to set it aside or give it up, whatever external justifications are possible are quite beside the point." The idea appears to be to undermine the notion that rational justification is necessary by showing that there is no role for rational justification to play in these cases.
Before continuing, let me note that the locution 'external reasons' is unfortunate here. The phrase appears to commit Seidman to the substantive thesis that justificatory reasons must necessarily be external reasons. Since all internalists hold that justificatory reasons are internal and some internalists hold that the very idea of an external reason is incoherent, such a thesis would be extremely controversial, and yet Seidman doesn't present any arguments for it. In fact, he explicitly declares that he intends, "to remain agnostic as to what sorts of considerations can be levied in legitimate rational criticism of a concern, and what sorts of considerations can be appealed to in order to justify allowing some concern to inform one's deliberation." In light of this, it seems to me that the most charitable way of reading Seidman is to suppose that when he uses the phrase 'external reasons' he means to be referring to justificatory reasons, whatever those turn out to be.
For the purposes of the argument, the relevant concerns are those which ground some of the agent's practical reasons for action, but which were not accepted by the agent on the basis of rational deliberation. My own preference for aspirin is a paradigm of such a concern -- it was, in a sense, given to me rather than arising as the result of a deliberative process. In such cases, Seidman argues, we can often produce justificatory reasons which would be sufficient to justify opting into the concern if we didn't already have it. Those justicatory reasons, however, don't track the actual reasons we would give in favor of the concern given that we already subscribe to it. Moreover, Seidman argues, our actual reasons will typically presuppose commitment to the concern at issue and will, as such, fail to be justificatory reasons for it. The upshot, Seidman concludes, is that rational deliberation can't play any role in grounding concerns in such cases.
I won't try to develop a full critique of this line of argument here, but let me briefly suggest a couple lines of objection.
One family of objections to Seidman's view focuses on his apparent commitment to the claim that the reasons which can justify rational endorsement of an immanent concern must be drawn from the stock of reasons which would justify opting into the concern. Many philosophers have held pretty much the opposite view, arguing that values and the reasons which support them cannot be fully perceived by someone who isn't already committed to the values. The most striking historical example of this is probably Aristotle's contention that the question of the rational basis of the ethical life can only be pursued by those who have themselves acquired virtue, but it is a well established and plausible view.
A related objection has to do with Seidman's claim that reasons which are derived from a prior commitment to a value can't be used in a justification of that value. Presumably Seidman's thought is that justification will be blocked on account of circularity. Well, in the first place, not all circles are vicious so even if Seidman is right about the circularity he has more work to do to show that there really is a threat to justification here. Second and more importantly, it isn't so clear that prior commitment must lead to circularity. Hume famously argued that the particular pleasure of moral goodness is only available to the virtuous. Since that pleasure is only available to those who are antecedantly committed to the value of moral goodness, it is only in virtue of their prior commitment that the pleasure can function as a reason. What's important to notice is that the connection between the commitment and the reason here is empirical rather than logical and that, as such, no circle arises. One can make similar points with regard to the epistemology of value. Prior commitment to a value exposes the individual to the operation of the value and in so doing grounds judgments about the functioning of the value, judgments which would not be available to someone who did not share such commitment. Again, the connection between commitment and reasons is real without being rational and no circle arises.
1 If, on the other hand, Seidman is talking about genuine external reasons then internalists will agree with his intermediate conclusion, but not on helpful grounds. They will agree, that is, that external reasons are beside the point 'for someone who harbours a given concern, and who has no pressing reason to set it aside or give it up', but this claim will be accepted because the internalist holds that external reasons are always beside the point.
2 Seidman is here treading on some of the same ground covered by Evan Tiffany. Some of my analysis of Tiffany's view can be found here.
Dumb joke blogging, cultural appropriation edition
The second philosopher asks, "How can you be so certain?"
The first philosopher replies, "Well, it's obvious: they're arguing from different premises!"
1 The joke is actually supposed to be about economists. I stole it from this post over at Big Brass Blog.
Monday, May 30, 2005
1. Used as an expression of apology before a statement that might be taken as offensive.
2. Human feces; a lump of human feces.
Consisting of, containing, or relating to feces.
Hatred of argument, reason, or enlightenment.
Sunday, May 29, 2005
I think Toby's blog is well named, but beyond that I doubt we agree about much. I wonder how he came across my site?
Saturday, May 28, 2005
1. Marked by a disposition to find and point out trivial faults.
2. Intended to entrap or confuse, as in an argument.
Friday, May 27, 2005
Anyhow, that's what the folks at Bayer say.
- 1899: Bayer distributes aspirin powder to physicians to give to their patients. Aspirin is soon the number one drug worldwide.
- 1969: Bayer Aspirin tablets were included in the self-medication kits taken to the moon by the Apollo astronauts.
- 1999: Genuine Bayer Aspirin and Extra Strength Bayer Aspirin Gelcaps introduced.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
A beer, chocolate, and a sneak peek at Jesus
- If the monkeys are smart enough to be trained in this way they're smart enough for their indenture to be morally suspect
I'm pretty sure I was thinking about this, but what are the other two objections? The notebook does not relate.
On another page, a url: urbanarepublic.info.
I got it off a billboard near my house, a billboard that looked pretty much like this:
I pay attention to local politics, but to this day I have no idea who that billboard was supposed to be supporting.
bluegrass banjo + Afro Caribbean Percussion
105 MAN 1
Continental Philosophy Review
"Reasonability, Normativity, and
the Cosmopolitan Imagination:
Arendt, Korsgaard, and Rawls"
June, 2003 36(2)
CT: distinction b/w a tuna w/ good taste, and
a good tasting tuna.
My new favorite joke
"Oh my," says the mouse, "you're quite big."
"Oh my," says the elephant, "you're quite small."
"Well," says the mouse, "I've been sick."
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
And another thing
Admitting this isn't, I think, at odds with saying that we sometimes conceive of ourselves as mere behavors when engaged in a project of "looking for reasons that we can acknowledge and endorse." But it is at odds with saying that such a project provides the only justification for thinking of ourselves in that way.
I'm not quite a Kantian, but the rational endorsement view is drawn from Kantian authors so it may be worth saying what all this has to do with that line of thinking. The moral vision underlying the Kantian project sees the basic moral power as the ability to conduct one's life according to one's rational judgments. A Kantian can admit, at a cost, that there are some cases where we aren't capable of bringing our behavior into line with our rational judgments, and still others where we aren't capable of judging rationally at all. The cost of this admission is that the Kantian will have difficulty explaining why we ought to strive to be Kantian saints when it is, apparently, something that we can't do.
For what it's worth, I think Epictetus can help the Kantian here. Like Kant, Epictetus offers practical advice which seems impossible to follow, as when Epictetus advises that we should not become upset at the death of a loved one. Such advice, Epictetus realizes, cannot be effective in the moment of grief. Rather, he advises that his readers "begin with the little things" and gradually teach themselves not to form attachments. If such a habit of thought can be thoroughly internalized, Epictetus thinks, then when life's big tragedies come the individual will not be vulnerable to unhappiness. Similarly, the Kantian could advise that we "begin with the little things" when seeking to bring the conduct of our lives into line with our rational judgments.
This still leaves a crucial question. Supposing that it's possible for this kind of Kantian therapy to bring it about that we are able to achieve something resembling ideal rationality, is this something we would want to do? For the Kantian the answer is obvious, but it is obvious only because the Kantian finds all that is essential to the individual in the individual's capacity for rational judgment.
[originally a trademark]
A white, crystalline compound derived from salicylic acid and commonly used to relieve pain and reduce fever and inflammation. Also called acetylsalicylic acid.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
I'm not sure why, but I have a strong preference for aspirin over other low strength pain medications.
Maybe it's because aspirin is what we had around the house when I was a kid -- this was before Ibuprofin and the only time you saw Tylenol was when you went to the doctor or watched the news. Or it could be that my preference for aspirin tracks a preference for well established natural remedies. I do have such a preference, but it's so inconsistent with my more general technological optimism that I wonder whether it's driven by the preference for aspirin rather than the other way around. Another possibility, and this is my favorite, is that aspirin works well for my pain and that my preference is a more or less unconscious outgrowth of my body's recognition of this fact.
Let me take a second to tie this all in to one of my favorite philosophical subjects, the role of reasons in human action. Note that each of the hypotheses in the previous paragraph is an attempt to explain the cause of my aspirin preference, but none of them amounts to a reason that I might give for choosing aspirin over some other painkiller. That's not to say that reasons can't be extracted from the explanations -- my reason might be that aspirin works well for my pain or that well established natural remedies are better than industrial alternatives -- but that doesn't change the fact that in presenting those explanations I was looking for a causal rather than rational account of my behavior. Moreover, this way of thinking, thinking about ourselves as beings enmeshed in complex causal processes, seems to be both common and helpful.
This admission might seem to be in tension with one of my hobby horses in this area, since I regularly argue that when talking about human action we ought to privilege rational explanations over causal ones. The first thing to say here is that it would be a mistake to say that causal explanations are never relevant to understanding human behavior, and that insofar as I've made that claim I've overstated the case for privileging rational explanations.
I haven't worked out precisely what I want to say about this sort of case, but here's a first stab. Human behavior can be roughly divided into action and mere behavior. The distinctive feature of action is that it can be explained by appeal to reasons which the agent herself would acknowledge and endorse. When we reflect on our own behavior in terms of external causes, we are thinking of ourselves as merely behaving. However, in doing so we are looking for reasons that we can acknowledge and endorse. Insofar as such a project succeeds, our behavior will become grounded in the space of reasons and will, as such, be transformed into action.
Hope that didn't give anybody a headache. If it did, I recommend aspirin.
Friday, May 20, 2005
For the record, the stereo had a 3 cd changer and I also lost Janis Joplin's "Pearl" and Neil Young's "Freedom." Don't much mind the loss of the stereo -- it was on its very last legs -- but the cds hurt. CCR and Janis Joplin I don't listen to much anymore, but Neil Young had reentered my rotation. Should have ripped it.
Anyhow, got to get back to the funky monks.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
1. Concentration of emotional energy on an object or idea. 2. (psychoanalysis) The libidinal energy invested in an object, idea, or person.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
adj. Promoting peace, conciliatory.
v. To make amends or reparation for; atone.