Rationalism and reasons for action: desire, belief, and motivation

Kari Refsdal

My fundamental question is the following: Is there a necessary connection between rational agency and moral agency? Alternatively: Are we moral beings in virtue of being rational, as Kant assumed? Or are we moral beings because we have a moral sense of some kind of the other, for instance a natural disposition to fellow sympathy, as Hume argued?

The Kantian perspective seems most promising if we want to give an account of why moral obligations are, exactly, obligatory. My moral obligation to avoid exposing other human beings (or all sensible beings) to unduly harm, for instance, presumably does not disappear if I happen to be totally insensitive to their suffering. From the Kantian perspective, this moral obligation, and our ability to fulfil it, has its origin in our rational nature, and not in some kind of moral sense. However, Hume and the neo-Humeans argue that such a view drastically exaggerates the function of reason. Our rational nature consists in our ability to find the most effective means to realize our aims. Those aims are determined by our desires in a broad sense. For instance, if I desire to further my academical career, I ought to create a network of useful acquaintances. If I desire to have as much fun as possible, I ought to indulge in slightly different activities. If I desire to be a morally good person, I ought to act the way in which I am morally obligated to act. My rational nature makes possible the purely instrumental or technical realization of these desires, but nothing more.

This question of the connection between rationality and morality is relevant even today. Contemporary philosophers often say that moral obligations – for instance my obligation to avoid exposing other sensible beings to unduly harm – are normative. This seems to entail that moral obligations tell us how we ought to act, and it is reasonable to assume that this ‘ought’ let us know how we have normative reason to act. We have a normative reason to act the way in which it is rational for us to act. If we accept that moral obligations are normative, it seems that those obligations provide us with normative reasons for action because we are rational beings.

Neo-Humeans, however, argue that the mere fact that moral obligations are normative does not, by itself, entail that they provide us with normative reasons for action. We do not always have a normative reason to act the way in which we are morally obligated to act – this way of acting is not always rational for us. A normative reason for action, they argue, is constituted by (a) a desire, and (b) a belief about how this desire can be realized. For instance, I have a normative reason to create a network of useful academical acquaintances if I desire to further my academical career, and a belief that creating such a network is a means to realize this desire. This seems unproblematic. But do we therefore have to say that I have a normative reason to avoid exposing other sensible beings to unduly harm because I have a desire to be a morally good person, and a belief that avoiding such harm-inflicting actions is a means to realize this desire? What if I lack such a desire? Do I, in that case, also lack a reason to avoid harm-inflicting actions? It seems somewhat problematical to answer this question positively.

In order to avoid having to answer the question positively, however, it seems that we are committed to an account of what a normative reason for action is that diverges from that of the neo-Humeans. A number of possibilities are open; I will propose a Kantian theory of normative reasons for action. On the background of this theory, normative reasons for action are either hypothetical – like my reason to create a network of useful academical acquaintances – or categorical – an example is my reason to avoid harm-inflicting actions. This last normative reason is the one that is, at least in the first instance, most interesting from the moral point of view. Kant writes that this reason for action is unconditional, i.e., unconditioned by my desires – I have it in virtue of being rational.

However, what does this statement entail? The perhaps most challenging part of my thesis will be to develop a compelling argument that illustrates how my rationality, in itself, can be normative for me, for I am not only rational. We can say, alternatively, that I do not (as Kant makes clear) have a “holy will”. But although my will is not holy, I do have a will. I will try to argue that the will, and more generally our motivational capacities, are highly important in what can be called the interface between the normative and the empirical, the interface in which we study how our mind, included our rationality as normative, makes its appearance in us as part of nature and gives rise to normative reasons for action.



Hovedoppgave /Cand. Philol. Thesis:
Erfaring og frihet, Institutt for filosofi, 2003.

Vitenskapelige foredrag

”Kant on What is Entailed in Having a Practical Normative Competence”, in Kant on Free Agency, workshop hosted by the Norwegian Kant Society and CSMN, Oslo, May 22–24, 2008.

Kari Refsdal

Cand. philol. (filosofi)

Ph.D.-stipendiat CSMN; assosiert stipendiat Etikkprogrammet 2007–2011

Veileder: Christel Fricke, CSMN

Biveileder: Henrik Syse, PRIO

Adresse: Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature, Postboks 1020 Blindern, 0315 Oslo

Besøksadresse: P.A. Munchs hus, 2. etasje, Niels Henrik Abels vei 36, 0315 Oslo

E-post: kari.refsdal@ifikk.uio.no

Tlf.: 22 84 16 64/97 53 91 39

Tidligere stipend fra Etikkprogrammet: Nei