In my first post, I pressed Mark’s defense of the bold Humean thought that, crudely, if someone has a desire, then there is reason for him to act in ways that will help satisfy it. Let’s grant him that claim and move on.
There is an even larger worry in the offing: will Mark follow Hume in saying that someone could reasonably (or even ought to) choose scratching her finger over saving the world? He would have to, if he said that a reason’s weight is proportional to the strength of the desire. But that view, which Mark calls Proportionalism, is something he rejects. In addition, he also rejects the usual neo-Humean attempts to blunt the counter-intuitiveness of Hume’s finger scratching claim – he does not define correct weighing in terms, e.g. of coherence or higher order desires.
Instead, Mark gives us a novel, and somewhat complicated, account of correct weighing and ought. It has the following rough shape: start with the reasons you have to act; then ask what (second order) reasons you have to weigh these reasons one way rather than another; then ask what (third order) reasons you have to weigh second order reasons one way rather than another…keep going until you reach a level where there are reasons to weigh one way but no reasons to weigh any other.
When you reach that point, you are ready to figure out the correct way to weigh the original reasons – weigh the second-highest-order reasons as the highest-order reasons suggest, and then continue on down until you have determined which of the first order reasons you have most reason to weigh more heavily. Finally, we can say that correct deliberation will weigh the first order reasons in the way just identified and that you ought to act in accord with correct deliberation.
Now to understand Mark’s view it is crucial to add two more elements:
First, we should always and only consider reasons of the right kind. And here is his definition of that:
(RKR) The right kind of reasons to do A are reasons that are shared by everyone engaged in the activity of doing A, such that the fact that they are engaged in doing A is sufficient to explain why these are reasons for them. (135)
His example is based on the premise that if one is playing chess, then one has some desire to follow the rules of the game; just grant that. He then says that because that desire is shared by everyone playing chess, there is a reason of the right kind for everyone playing chess to follow these rules. Desires like that contrast with ones that are not essential to an activity. You might, for example, be tempted to break the rules of chess to win some money and therefore have reason to break the rules. But because not all chess players have a desire that would be furthered by breaking the rules in order to win, your reason to break the rules of chess is not one that would carry weight in a correct deliberation about how to play chess; it is a reason of the wrong kind.
The second and final element of his view is his account of agent neutral reasons: basically, X is an agent neutral reason to φ if and only if X is a reason for each and every agent to φ. Given Mark’s account of reasons, we can also say – to put it a bit crudely – that X is an agent neutral reason to φ if and only if every agent has a desire whose satisfaction would be promoted by φ-ing. Finally, he says that an action promotes a desire’s satisfaction just by making its satisfaction more likely that it would be if the action were not performed. Against this backdrop, he expresses confidence that we will be able to show that there are agent neutral reasons to act morally – for any agent it is true that acting morally will promote some desire she has. Let’s just grant that.
We can now show why Mark thinks that even Frankie, the fetishistic finger-scratcher, ought to save the world rather than scratch his finger. Roughly the argument goes like this (adapting from another case on page 142):
To figure out what Frankie ought to do, we need to figure out how he would correctly weigh the reasons for and against scratching his finger instead of saving the world. Because of his fetish, Frankie may have abundant reasons to place more weight on his reasons to scratch at the world’s expense. But those reasons aren’t relevant for our purposes because they are of the wrong kind – to be reasons of the right kind, they must be reasons that everyone who is placing weight on reasons (deliberating) has, in virtue of engaging in the activity of deliberating. And since deliberating is an activity in which every agent engages, only agent neutral reasons are reasons of the right kind to take into account when trying to determine how to correctly deliberate. Finally, because there is agent neutral reason to save the world and agent neutral reason to choose saving the world over scratching a finger, Frankie ought to save the world.
He uses an analogous argument to show that Ronnie has reason to help Katie, even though he hates her (142) and that Aunt Margaret ought not build the spacecraft, even though she really want to (143).
With all this in mind, here are some worries:
Worry #1: The argument that Frankie ought to save the world I sketched above uses one key assumption: that when we are trying to decide how to weigh (first order) reasons, we are engaged in the activity of deliberating, so the right kind of reasons to take into account are those which all deliberators have – agent neutral reasons. But we can be engaged in more than one activity at the same time. Imagine that Ted Bundy is deliberating in order to figure out how to cover his tracks – should he kill a witness who saw him at the scene of his last crime or would that be too risky? When he deliberates about this, he is simultaneously engaged in two activities – deliberating and trying to cover his murderous tracks (of which his deliberating is one dimension). But if that is right, then it seems Mark must do more to establish his claim that whenever we are deliberating, it is only correct to weigh as agent neutral reasons suggest. Claims about correctness depend on claims about which reasons are of the right kind, which depend, in turn, on claims about the activity in which the agent is engaged.
Insofar as we focus on the fact that Ted's activity is deliberation, it will be right to say that agent neutral reasons are the only right ones, and that it is correct for him to decide to not kill the witness; from this point of view, his desire to cover his murderous tracks does not give him reasons of the right kind while moral reasons will. But insofar as he is engaged in the activity of trying to cover his murderous tracks, it might be correct for him to decide to kill the witness, and his desire to cover his murderous track will generate reasons of the right kind. More generally, even if Mark’s account allows us to say that people ought not to act on reasons (to weigh reasons) grounded in idiosyncratic desires, the same cannot be said for reasons that are grounded in desires that are typical of those engaged in criminal activities. In addition to generating counter-intuitive ought claims, this also seems to entail that on Mark's view Ted ought and ought not kill the witness, if the risk of doing so is low.
Worry #2: I have an independent worry that Mark’s approach – as he represents it – is too strong. It entails when we correctly deliberate we weigh first order reasons as agent-neutral reasons suggest and we never weigh as (only) merely agent-relative reasons suggest. Now assume, as Mark hopes we should, that moral reasons are agent neutral. Won’t his view commit us to saying that we always ought to volunteer rather than spend the weekend at a stamp collecting convention (or mountain climbing or piano playing)? Because some people have no desire that would be promoted by spending the weekend stamp collecting, there is no agent neutral reason to go stamp collecting. And this raises doubts about there being agent neutral reason to choose stamp collecting over volunteering. More generally, it is hard to see how there could be an agent neutral reason to choose working on a hobby rather than doing some supererogatory moral act.
Again, any advice about how to be
more charitable and any responses to these worries are welcome. And advice about how to shorten my summary of Mark’s view is also welcome via email.