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.