Internal Reasons That Cannot Motivate

Bernard Williams begins an influential essay [1] by defining internalism about reasons as follows:

Internalism   There is a reason for person A to φ only if A has some motive which would be furthered by his or her φ-ing.

Plenty of philosophers have found something intuitive about this idea, but there has also been no shortage of disagreement over the exact sense in which A must “have some motive” which φ-ing must further. In the introduction to a recent anthology of literature on internal reasons, Kieran Setiya [2] seems to think that the most attractive versions of internalism are those which satisfy the explanatory constraint. Bernard Williams gives it best:

EX   If something can be a reason for action, then it can be someone’s reason for acting on a particular occasion, and then it would figure in an explanation of that action. (p. 106)

There are at least a few reasons for adhering to EX. You might think that there is a unified account of explanatory and normative reasons, and that EX is a link in that unification. You might think that what it is for A to have a motivation which would be furthered by A’s φ-ing is just for there to be some p such that A is disposed to make p A‘s motivating reason for φ-ing. If you’re inclined to believe either of these, you’ll probably think with Setiya that the broadest plausible version of internalism is IR:

IR   The fact that p is a reason for A to φ only if A is capable of being moved to φ by the belief that p. (p. 4)

However, I don’t see how EX could possibly be true, as I don’t think it can overcome the kinds of cases which motivate so-called “advice models” of reasons. I argue that an agent can have a reason for action which, qua reason, could not possibly motivate them. This undercuts the motivation for thinking that IR is the correct way of understanding internalism.

First, some clarifications. (a) The reasons under consideration here are objective, holding in virtue of the facts and not in virtue of what one believes the facts to be. (b) As they stand EX and IR require interpretation. If I’m sufficiently irrational, any proposition or fact I can cognize has the potential to motivate me to do anything. Under that reading any proposition could be a reason for action, and the two requirements fail to rule anything out. I think a better way of capturing the intuition is IR`:

IR`   If p is a reason for A to φ, then A is capable of being rationally motivated to φ by the belief that p. 

Now we can see where the supposed explanatory constraint may lead: reasons are to be explained in terms of rational motivation. If we have a good handle on what rational motivation looks like, we’ll have an attractive account of reasons.

And now for the negative phase. The key to the argument is that one can  have reasons to act which stem from one’s own ignorance and which cannot be cognized qua reasons.

Suppose I’m driving and, unbeknownst to me, I’m about to hit a patch of black ice. A curious fact about me is that I can’t handle black ice if it surprises me – I always freak out and swerve wildly. However if I’m aware that there will be black ice on the road ahead, I’m always able to collect my senses and navigate it just fine.

Let’s say that at t1 I will hit this ice if I go straight. But it’s now t0 and I have two options: go straight, or take a detour. I think the intuitive thing to say is that b, the fact that there’s black ice on the road straight ahead, is a reason for me to take the detour at t0 (ψ).

However if I were to come to believe b it would no longer be a reason, for I’d then have sufficient time to prepare myself for the coming black ice. As soon as I believe b it ceases to be a reason to ψ, and hence my being motivated to ψ by the belief that b would not be rational. So b is a reason for me to ψ, but it isn’t possible for me to be rationally motivated to ψ by the belief that b. And if it isn’t possible for me to be motivated in that way, then I’m not capable of being motivated in that way. So, IR` is false.

I think this kind of example provides stronger evidence for the advice model than those which have generally been advanced. Take Gary Watson’s example of the irrationally angry squash player: that an attempt to shake hands would most likely lead to an assault is a reason not to attempt a hand-shaking. Still, you might think that even an irrational squash player is capable of being rationally moved not shake hands by the realization of this fact, so this case does not count against IR or IR`. However things are worse than they seemed for those who favor the explanatory constraint, since some reasons derived from one’s own ignorance cannot be accomodated by the model, even though the advice model can accomodate them. (I haven’t shown this latter, but I hope it’s intuitive.)


[1] Williams, Bernard. (1979). “Internal and External Reasons.” In Rational Action, ed. Ross Harrison. Cambridge UP, pp. 17-28. Reprinted in Williams, Bernard. (1981). Moral Luck. Cambridge UP: pp. 101-113.

[2] Setiya, Kieran. (2012). “Introduction.” In Internal Reasons, ed. Kieran Setiya and Hille Pakkunainen. MIT Press, pp. 1-34.


11 Responses to Internal Reasons That Cannot Motivate

  1. Dustin Locke says:

    What a cool case! Since I’ve been thinking about motivating reasons quite a bit lately, let me see if I can defend IR’ against the case. Here’s what I’m tempted to say: the fact that there is black ice on the road is no reason for you to take the detour. As you said, if there’s black ice and you know it (believe it) ahead of time, you can handle it just fine. Instead, the reason for you to take the detour is that [there is black ice and you do not believe there is black ice]. Now, is it possible for you to be rationally motivated to take the detour by the belief that [there is black ice and you do not believe there is black ice]? Well, in a sense, no, but only because it is not rational for you to believe [there is black ice and you do not believe there is black ice]. But, aside from that irrationality, I don’t see anything further irrational about being motivated to take the detour by the belief that [there is black ice and you do not believe there is black ice]. Hence, if we understand the ‘rationally motivated’ part of IR’ as concerning, not the rationality of the belief itself, but the specific rationality of being motivated to act in a certain way, setting aside the irrationality of the belief, then maybe IR’ comes out just fine. In any case, your case is certainly going to put pressure on your opponents to be careful, and maybe to rely on unfamiliar notions (as I just did). Very clever.

    • Paul Boswell says:

      Glad you like the example! I’m open to a systematic way of individuating reasons on which [there is black ice ahead] does not itself constitute a reason to take the detour. One way to do this, which I take to be your way, is to make them less defeasible than what I was thinking. On my understanding, [there is black ice ahead] is a reason to take the detour which is *defeated* if I am also aware of that very fact. But you might have the intuition that [there is black ice ahead] is no reason at all unless the defeaters are absent, in which case you might as well make the absence of the defeaters part of the reason. So, the real reason here would be [there is black ice ahead & I don’t believe it]. And you astutely point out that though I would be irrational to *believe* [there is black ice ahead & I don’t believe it] , I may not be irrational to be * motivated* to take the detour on the basis of that belief. But I’ve got some questions about how we’re to understand rational motivation on the basis of that belief. Suppose I’m a mediocre chess player, and I believe in the teeth of my own evidence that I’ll win my upcoming game against Gary Kasparov. That belief is irrational, but in light of it I would be rational of me to place a bet on my winning. Contrast this with beliefs that are irrational in themselves, like my belief that there is black ice ahead and I don’t believe it (“*b*, and I don’t believe it”). A rational motivation to take the detour is only possible if it is true of me that I believe “*b*, and I don’t believe it” (that’s what enables it to be a motivating reason) but I don’t believe *b* (otherwise I don’t satisfy the conditions of the reason). But plausibly, in order for me to be rationally motivated to take the detour, I also have to believe that there *is* black ice ahead – otherwise, why take the detour? So as it stands, I’m not convinced that rational motivation on the basis of this reformulated reason is possible either. Thanks for helping me think through this!

    • Dustin Locke says:

      This is all very interesting! I agree that rational motivation on the basis of the reformulated reason is not possible. But my suggestion is that it is not possible because it is not possible to rationally believe the reformulated reason, not because there is anything further irrational about acting on the belief–in other words, the belief (aside from its irrationality) “rationalizes” the action. We can probably work out the idea of “rationalizing” in terms of conditional preferences–i.e., given [b and you don’t believe b], you prefer taking the detour; but given not[b and you don’t believe b], you prefer not taking the detour.

  2. Dustin Locke says:

    I think the trick here is to take a third-person perspective on yourself: what do you prefer you to do in the event that b and you don’t believe b?

    • Paul Boswell says:

      Dustin: Right, so my comment above was an attempt to explain why, if I were to believe “b, but I don’t believe it” while driving and be moved to take the detour, that would not count as a case of *rational* motivation. For either I believe b, or I don’t; in the former case I have no reason to take the detour and thus can’t be rationally motivated to take it, and in the latter it’s hard to see how my motivation could be rational (why take the detour to avoid ice if I don’t believe that there is ice? That seems to be a case of *lucky* motivation, not *rational* motivation).

      I do like your idea of using conditional preferences, so long as the preferences are taken from this third-personal perspective. Of course, your 3rd-personal preferences shouldn’t be based on misinformation or ignorance, so we should take the 3rd-personal preferences you have for yourself if you were fully rational. But that’s just the advice model, at least insofar as Smith characterizes it in his “Internal Reasons”! And as Setiya notes (p. 15), it’s far from a straight shot to IR (or IR’, for that matter) from the advice model. (For one thing, it does not seem like this preference for your phi-ing when P is true is a case of your being capable of being moved to phi on the basis of P.)

  3. Vanitas says:

    Perhaps I’m missing something here, but I don’t see about how a neo-Humean account of practical reasons can be engaged with in any of these terms. IR, for example, seems to require that we are motivated by beliefs. For any Humean, there is no fact P such that belief in this fact can, on its own, motivate me. Secondly, talking about reasons as “objective, holding in virtue of the facts and not in virtue of what one believes the facts to be” already puts you at enormous theoretical distance from internalism… indeed, it is very difficult to see how this definition does not land you straight in the externalist camp from the get-go. Subsequent talk about “b” just being a reason for action is foreign to any internalist account. Finally, I believe that any neo-Humean is simply going to tell you that they don’t know what you mean by “rational motivation”. Sobel, for example, says that reasons derive from well-informed desires but that desires are not the sorts of things that we can have reasons to have. For such a person, it is a category error to say that motivation on its own can be rational or irrational.So, my question is: In what sense do you take yourself to be discussing “internal reasons” that cannot motivate?

  4. Dustin Locke says:

    Hi Vanitas, as I understand things, “internalism about reasons” is now used to mean something different from what you seem to be thinking about. Specifically, internalism about reasons is not the view that all reasons are internal (in the sense you have in mind). Rather, as Paul notes, “internalism about reasons” is simply the view that “There is a reason for person A to φ only if A has some motive which would be furthered by his or her φ-ing.” Note this is consistent with how the phrase is used here:

  5. Paul Boswell says:

    Vanitas: One quick way to render IR consistent with a neo-Humean account of motivation is to give an dispositional account of desire: what it is to desire that P is, in part, to be moved to some extent to make it that P when you believe that not-P (and to have other related dispositions). There are other ways, too, of understanding IR such that reasons cannot produce or rationalize motivation in the absence of desire. In fact, you might think of IR instead as one way of getting at this very intuition – after all, just what *is it* for a person to be moved by a desire, as opposed to by a reason in the absence of a desire?

    Thanks for helping to clarify, Dustin.

    Fittingly, I inadvertently did some empirical research on this today. I was out running and didn’t realize I was on ice until it was too late, and I ate the pavement. I should have gone around, though I suppose it may not have been rational of me to.

  6. Dustin Locke says:

    “(For one thing, it does not seem like this preference for your phi-ing when P is true is a case of your being capable of being moved to phi on the basis of P.)”

    Right, so perhaps IR’ is not the best ways to work out Internalism.

    As for the advice model, I’m not familiar enough with the literature to know whether my proposal counts as a version of the advice model. But, crucially, the preferences in question are your own, and so I think this is why my proposal counts as a version of internalism. Aren’t we trying to work out the best version of internalism? If your point is that your case gives us reason to reject the idea that internalism is best worked out as IR’, I think I agree. I was trying to find a way to save IR’ by understanding ‘being rationally motivated to φ by the belief that p’ in a certain way. But perhaps the better path is simply to reject IR’ and instead formulate internalism directly in terms of the agent’s own conditional preferences.

  7. Paul Boswell says:

    I definitely think of this as a debate within internalism, so I think we’re in agreement.

  8. Dustin Locke says:

    Ah, OK. Good stuff.

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