Philosophical Ethics: Bruce Russell On Theories About What Makes An Action Rational Or Not

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester. Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are). I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions. These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions. Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university. I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here.  The text we are using and from which all citations will be taken is Ethical Theory: classical and contemporary readings, edited by Louis Pojman. Wadsworth: California, 2007). In this post I lay out Bruce Russell’s account of the basic options we have for determining what constitutes a rational or irrational basis for action.

Bruce Russell presents four possible theories of reasons for action.  The question at hand is whether there can be reasons that an agent should not do an immoral action, like torture a child, even if he knew he could get away with it and suffer no consequences to himself as the result of his action.  Here are what the four possibilities consist of:

1. Agent-Relative Internalism. An agent-relative internalist thinks that either the only or the supreme reason to perform an action would be to fulfill our strongest desire for a given situation.  On this view everyone, no matter who they are, has no reason to act contrary to their strongest desire.  That’s not to say that no one should ever do things like sacrifice for others but that the only reason that could ever rationally persuade them and be given as a rational justification to them to sacrifice for others would be that their strongest desire happened to be that they sacrifice for others.  On this theory, unless my supreme desire is to do x, I have no reason not to do x.  On this account if the sadist really wants desperately to torture the only reason they will have not to torture would have to be some still stronger desire like the desire not to get caught, for example.  But should that person have a way to torture without getting caught and no other desire that is stronger to them than the desire to torture, then that person has no reason not to torture.  You could not call their act of torturing irrational.    And you cannot call their action immoral on the grounds of irrationality since they are not being irrational but rationally following out their desires and reason gives no other reasons to us that could ever trump the reasons that come from our most powerful desires.  If an alcoholic has no stronger desire to drink, then he has no reason not to drink.

2. An Agent-Relative Externalist. An agent-relative externalist would agree that agents can have reasons to act that sometimes differ from their desires.  On this view, people have objective self-interests, whether or not they recognize them.  The alcoholic has a self-interest in stopping drinking insofar as the preservation of her liver is objectively good for her, insofar as her success in her career or her relationships are interests she has.  By interests therefore we mean something distinct from her desires.  Her desire is for alcohol but her interests are for her own well-being and/or flourishing.  Her health, her happiness, the development of her capacities, her wealth, etc. are the supreme reasons for actions.  When she acts on desires which conflict with her fulfilling these interests in life, she acts irrationally.  This is not to deny that sometimes, or even often, her desires will coincide with her objective self-interests.  When she acts according to desires that are aligned with her actual self-interests, then there is nothing wrong with that.  But she never has a reason to follow a desire that conflicts with her self-interests.  Even were she to believe she should only follow her strongest desires and to actually act only on her strongest desires, she would be objectively wrong to think that.  There are objective reasons based on objective considerations of her well-being or flourishing which make it so that the only reasons she genuinely has are ones that lead to her fulfillment of her genuine self-interest.

3. Agent-Neutral Internalism. This view, like Agent-Relative Internalism, also takes desires alone to be the only, or the supreme and overriding, source of reasons.  But unlike Agent-Relative Internalists, Agent-Neutral Internalists:

what other people want or would want gives an agent reason to act even if he does not (and would not, even if ideally situated) care about their desires.

So this view essentially combines the notion that only desires can give rise to reasons for action with the idea that there might be reasons we should have which we do not.  Unlike externalists who think that there are objective reasons for actions that do not derive from anyone’s desires, the internalists think that even if there are reasons we have apart from our own desires they must be reasons that come from some people’s desires.  So people in general want things which we too have reasons to want even if we do not.  The basis of our reason for wanting them which we should acknowledge (but may not) is in the desires of most humans, rather than any appeal to objective needs for anything like well-being, flourishing or, even, rational formal consistency of any sort.

4. Agent-Neutral Externalism. Finally there is the position that we have reasons that are supreme and in conflict cases always override our individual desires, our personal objective self-interest, and the desires of humans in general.  These would be reasons based in an objective good (like reasons in Agent-Relative Externalism are) that are independent of our desires, but then these reasons go further to have the ability to trump even our own peculiar interests by acknowledging that I have reasons to seek more than just my own good but to also seek the good of others.  Sometimes I can have reasons to act for my or others’ objective good and in both cases, these reasons will trump my actual desires and consideration of what everyone desires.  I act irrationally if I do not respond with appropriate action to the objectively good reasons to serve others’ interests when I let  my desires to act in ways that go contrary to my objective reasons for promoting others’ interests.

What do you think?  What makes an action rational?  Are only actions which follow your strongest desires rational?  Are the only rational actions to undertake those that most humans would desire and are all our actions which flow from contrary reasons to the “most humans would desire it” standard fundamentally irrational?   Are there defensible objective self-interests that you can prove exist and would rationally give reasons that could overrule our desires and the desires of most or all people?  How might we prove there are such objective goods which constitute our self-interest and make all our actions which fall short of this standard irrational (even if—or because—those actions are faithful to our desires.  Our desires do not always give the best reasons and therefore it is not always rational to act on them).  Finally, can we say that externalist reasons exist which make reference neither to our own desires, nor to others’ desires, nor exclusively to our own self interests?  Can we say, with the externalist, that we may be criticized as wrong and irrational when our actions fail to be consistent with an allegiance to goods that go beyond what we actually desire to be objective and to include only our actual interests and those of others formally like us?  Are the externalists right? And we are being not only immoral but irrational when our actions are inconsistent with some objective reasons we have to put others’ objective interests and our own above our desires? If there is such a rational basis for motivation which is independent entirely of whether or not we desire it or whether many others do, how might we prove the existence of these reasons which trump our actual (or even our ideal) desires?

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.