Imagine a person who is not at all motivated to help others. I don't just mean a person who doesn't care about others as much as she should; I mean a person who is literally not motivated at all, not even to the tiniest degree. Now comes the question: Could such a person genuinely believe that she is morally obligated to help other people?
This question lies at the heart of a complex philosophical debate. Motivational externalists (in one sense of the term) argue that it is possible for an agent to hold a moral belief in the absence of any corresponding motivation. It could be that the agent genuinely believes she has this moral obligation but simply doesn't care at all about what she is morally obligated to do. By contrast, motivational internalists argue that such a belief would be impossible. On this latter view, it is necessarily the case that if an agent believes she is morally obligated to do something, she is at least somewhat motivated to do it.
Although work in this area draws on numerous different kinds of considerations, one important form of argument involves appeals to people's ordinary intuitions. It is with regard to this one form of argument that we have seen especially impressive progress over the past few years. There has been a real surge of research involving systematic experimental studies about people's intuitions on this question, and we now know far more about the intuitive view bout these matters than we did even a couple of years ago.
So I was thinking that it might be a good idea to try to put together a summary of some of the key recent findings on this topic. I've included a draft of such a summary below. Please write in if you have done some other work that should be added in, or if there is anything I should change in what is already there. (I will be happy to add in further information as it appears.) And more importantly, feel free to write in if you have any thoughts about how these findings might or might not be relevant to the larger philosophical debate.
Samuel Scheffler’s original and provocative Tanner lectures, now published as Death and the Afterlife (OUP 2013), have already stirred discussion about the importance of humanity’s continued survival for the value of our own lives. In a witty and penetrating review of Scheffler’s work, Mark Johnston argues, among other things, that were our flourishing to depend on the flourishing of future generations, life would turn out to be a kind of Ponzi scheme: the value of our lives would depend on an infinite continuation of humanity. Since there’s good reason to think the chain of generations will eventually end, Schefflerian afterlifism implies the deeply pessimistic conclusion that “there are no value-laden lives to be found anywhere in the history of humanity”. Here, I’m going to argue that this objection fails: the point of many of our most cherished activities can depend on a certain kind of existence of future generations without any danger of regress. We need future generations to be there to be benefited by us or to appreciate our work and perhaps to continue our traditions, not necessarily to flourish in the same way as we do.
We are very pleased to begin our announced Ethics discussion of Erich Hatala Matthes' piece, “History, Value, and Irreplaceability," which can be found open access here. Carolyn Korsmeyer, professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo (SUNY), will open the discussion with the critical précis below the fold. Here now is Korsmeyer. Thanks to everyone for participating, and here's to a great discussion!
Brian Weatherson has posted a new paper in which he argues against "moral hedging" -- roughly, refraining from A-ing on the grounds that there's a non-zero probability that A-ing is wrong and a zero probability that not A-ing is wrong. I'd like to explain why I think his central argument fails, and hear what y'all have to say both about that argument and about the issue in general.
The argument is that one cannot hedge without exhibiting unseemly motivations in so doing, and so one ought not to hedge. Specifically, Weatherson says, one cannot hedge without thereby being motivated to avoid wrongdoing as such. He asks us to imagine a person who has some credence that eating meat is wrong, and so refrains from eating meat. The content of her ultimate motivation cannot be to refrain from subsidizing the killing of cows, since she does not (fully) believe that this is wrong; rather, it must be to refrain from doing what's morally wrong (whatever that happens to be).
A truly honest question, in light of today's NY Times science article, "If Smart is the Norm, Stupidity Gets More Interesting." Perhaps, as usual, scientists could use some conceptual help. Just curious on your thoughts. Here is one line of query: what is stupidity as opposed to mild mental retardation? "Stupid" is, after all, still an acceptable predicate to toss around at both people and their actions. On what basis? What is it tracking if not an incapacity? (Or perhaps it is targeting an incapacity, in which case how could there be warrant for what seems a responsibility predication?)
I'm pleased to announce a call for abstracts for the next St. Louis Conference on Reasons and Rationality, sponsored by UMSL and Washington University. Many PEA Soupers have participated the past three years.
May 19 – 21, 2013 Moonrise Hotel in St Louis, MO
Keynote Speaker: Michael Smith (Princeton)
St. Louis Annual Conference on Reasons and Rationality (SLACRR) provides a forum for new work on practical and theoretical reason, broadly construed. Please submit an abstract of 750-1500 words by December 31, 2012 to SLACRR (at) gmail.com. In writing your abstract, please bear in mind that full papers should suitable for a 30 minute presentation.
What to Submit
SLACRR includes papers in ethics, epistemology, and other areas of philosophy that deal with reasons, reasoning, or rationality. For instance, we would be interested in papers exploring such questions as:
• What is the relation between reasons for actions and reasons for beliefs? • What are the sources of our reasons for belief? • How are features of one’s psychology relevant to reasons? • What is the relation between reasons and what we ought to do or believe? • What is the relation between reasons and value? • Are the requirements of practical and theoretical rationality normative? • What is the relation between individual rationality and collective rationality?
For more information, see http://www.umsl.edu/~slacrr/
Thanks again to everyone who took the emotional responses survey. Below are the cases and response data for the first 100 responses. I’ve given a bit of analysis following each case, and there are some general remarks following that. First, I wanted to say just a bit about what I was up to here.
Eli Weber, a graduate student at Bowling Green, has designed a three-question survey about emotional responses to past perceived injuries that ought to yield some interesting results. Please take the survey here, and perhaps Eli will discuss the results in a few days.
Philosophers have long debated the nature of happiness, with some saying that happiness is just a certain kind of psychological state and others claiming that true happiness is not just a matter of having certain feelings but also requires genuine virtue.
The new field of experimental philosophy may not be able to help us arrive at a definitive resolution of this age-old debate, but at the very least, it does seem to have inspired a very funny interactive video!
(Note: To go through this interactive video, you have to click at the end of each segment to begin the next one.)