normativity as a type of functional capacity in motivation (the case of having reason to be instrumentally rational)

We might think of normativity as something like our functional capacity to solve the problem of maintaining sufficient moment-to-moment motivation in order to effectively pursue goals and comply with norms (using ‘norm’ here in a descriptive sense that might be associated with either standards/rules of functional operation or social expectation/accountability).

Think first about instrumental rationality.  Often – when the known means to achieving a chosen end are not unpleasant, undesired or otherwise hard to pull off – the mechanisms/tendencies of instrumental rationality tend to operate in a motivationally smooth way.  There is no big problem of adequate motivation to pursue known effective means.  But, in other cases, something additional to the “transfer of motivation” from ends to means is needed.  The most typical means of failure is provided by motivational competition from other non-instrumental desires that come to consciousness in present, active form (often prompted by present stimulus).  To the extent that this is present, one tends to stray from one’s purpose.

We have the capacity to resist or put off the satisfaction of presently-active desire.  This comes to a motivational mechanism, the functional profile of which is resistance to other desires.  In the technical sense of ‘desire’, this comes to having a different sort of desire – or, in more common parlance, a value, commitment or quality of will (as contrasted with the desires that this capacity and type of motivation functions to act against, desires that we might term “hot” or motivationally powerful when relevant stimulus is present).  This indicates a fundamental division in type of motivational state.  Such a division would be bolstered by the plausible idea that desire, and hence types of desire, are defined by their functional profile.  I think Kant’s distinction between the motivation of duty and motivations of desire or incentive gets at something very much like this distinction in desire or motivation.

The basic, natural capacity here varies between individuals and is manifested in a kind of persistence or constancy in behavior.  To some extent, we can see this sort of thing, and the variance of it across individuals, even in animals such as our domestic cats and dogs.

I want to suggest that the potential in the agent for utilizing such a capacity to resist presently-motivationally-active desire in the service of adhering to instrumental standards (given by some aspect of human function) for effectively achieving the agent’s goals goes most or all of the way toward making it the case that the agent has normative reason (of a sort, of the adhering-to-rational-standards sort) to pursue (what she takes to be) effective means to her chosen ends.  (Importantly, not just any arbitrarily chosen goals or standards will do, here.  They must be related to the agent in the appropriate way, perhaps by how the relevant states and capacities – here, action and the pursuit of goals or adherence to norms – function.)

What important details are missing from this sketch?  What is unclear?  What are the most important objections?  What are the best competing hypotheses?

(I’m thinking this sort of account – meant to generalize to explaining all sorts of normativity or normative reasons – should be called psychological or subjective, but not Humean.  For, as opposed to generic (including colloquial/hot) desire doing the work, what does the work are desires or motivations for adhering to the goals or standards inherent in the capacities being exercised – and this in the face of overcoming colloquial desire.  Also the relevant functions and relations between the different desires or motivations is more shades of Kant than shades of Hume.  Are there any better or more accurate descriptors?)

 

 

4 thoughts on “normativity as a type of functional capacity in motivation (the case of having reason to be instrumentally rational)

  1. I don’t exactly disagree with anything you say here, but in reading the first sentence

    We might think of normativity as something like our functional capacity to solve the problem of maintaining sufficient moment-to-moment motivation in order to effectively pursue goals and comply with norms

    I couldn’t help thinking that “normativity” is the name for the thing that explains why “maintaining sufficient moment-to-moment motivation” is a problem in the first place. In Frankfurtian terminology, an entity that can’t maintain moment-to-moment motivation is a “wanton,” a la Hugo, our cat. A quasi-Korsgaardian point: “normativity” is the property of human agents such that they can’t function, across a normal lifespan, as wantons; something about us requires (in some sense) that we rise above wantonhood.

    Given that statement of the problem, I guess I (sort of) end up disagreeing with what you say about instrumental rationality:

    Often – when the known means to achieving a chosen end are not unpleasant, undesired or otherwise hard to pull off – the mechanisms/tendencies of instrumental rationality tend to operate in a motivationally smooth way. There is no big problem of adequate motivation to pursue known effective means.

    Well, there is a problem of explaining why it is that we’re required to be motivated to pursue the goals that require known effective means. It’s not enough to say that we are motivated. The question is why we have to be.

    I’d say the same about this:

    We have the capacity to resist or put off the satisfaction of presently-active desire.

    As I see it, the problem of normativity arises when we realize that we have the capacity, but wonder why we have to actualize it in one way rather than another, whenever we do.

    I do taste the Kantian-Korsgaaardian flavor of your account. And that, I suppose, is what’s worrying me.

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  2. That’s quite helpful, Irfan. Thanks. I agree entirely with the direction that you are pushing me. I did not clearly answer the ‘holding ourselves to it with respect to which standards or goals and why?’ question, especially in my (unfortunate) lead-off general characterization.

    So I take back my first sentence. The italicized characterization of instrumental normativity later on in the post was closer to the mark that I meant to hit. I needed to clearly distinguish (a) sticking-to-it (or “normative”) motivation or mindset for a type of action or response and (b) the normative standards or goals that appropriately guide such action or response. The psychology of the first thing, as I presented it, was Kantian (and perhaps Korsgaardian) in its “duality” of motivation or desire-in-the-broad-sense (and somewhat anti-desire-in-the-ordinary-sense flavor).

    But there is also the following related thesis regarding normativity that I wanted to express: normativity exists only in relation to the the workings and functional nature of a type of action or response and of the immediate-desire-resisting, holding-ourselves-to-it capacities that might “govern” it.

    That’s schematic and I’ll fill the schema in a bit below. The immediate point is that this is a distinctive – and I think explanatory but non-intuitive – way of thinking about normativity. It is more intuitive to think of normative standards as being entirely distinct from the nature of our capacities to meet them (and of our capacities to meet them as merely fortuitous relative to the independent normative force of the standards). I’m not sure if this view of normativity is particularly Kantian or Korsgaardian. I’m thinking not.

    Here is a general fill-in for the general schema for normativity: to be the functional standard that the holding-ourselves-to-it mechanisms of a relevant action or response type serves (by solving a problem of otherwise unreliable-compliance) is to be the normative standard for that action or response. I’m thinking that something in this ballpark might be correct.

    So, to repeat myself a bit but hopefully also clarify, in the case of instrumental reasoning and action in pursuit of goals (ACTION TYPE), our sticking-to-it mechanisms would function to allow us to comply with relevant patterns of good instrumental reasoning and action (FUNCTIONAL STANDARD) and this makes it the case that the these standards are the appropriate standards to hold ourselves to in thinking and doing as we need to in order to be reliably effective in achieving chosen goals relative to the information that we have (FUNCTIONAL STANDARD IS ALSO NORMATIVE).

    (The “no problem of sticking to reliable instrumental reasoning and action procedures” case that I presented in the original post was meant to be a case in which the relevant standards of instrumental reasoning and action are merely functional, not normative. A conscious organism that reliably produced the right instrumental desires given her information and her goals – say her potentially-competing intrinsic desires fail to come to consciousness and actually compete/distract – would function well with respect to her instrumental reasoning and action, but would not have normative reason to adhere to these standards in her instrumental reasoning or action. This is because, roughly speaking, the problem that normativity solves does not arise.)

    Is that helpful?

    (I’m aware that I haven’t really given anything other than intuitive – in the context of coming up with a good constitutive explanation – reasons for thinking that this sort of view of normativity is correct. I need to remember/anticipate the relevant challenges and respond to them. As far as I can tell, the main competitor views are either anti-explanationist (normativity as a basic property with no constitutive explanation or simply explanatory “quietism”) or different versions of promoting-what-the-agent-desires or “Humean” explanationism (e.g., Mark Schroeder’s view in his SLAVES OF THE PASSIONS). But hopefully I’ve achieved some additional clarity about what the proposal comes to.)

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    • I guess that does clarify, but I don’t think it really changes what I regard as the relevant part of your original view. This is still the sticking point for me:

      (The “no problem of sticking to reliable instrumental reasoning and action procedures” case that I presented in the original post was meant to be a case in which the relevant standards of instrumental reasoning and action are merely functional, not normative. A conscious organism that reliably produced the right instrumental desires given her information and her goals – say her potentially-competing intrinsic desires fail to come to consciousness and actually compete/distract – would function well with respect to her instrumental reasoning and action, but would not have normative reason to adhere to these standards in her instrumental reasoning or action. This is because, roughly speaking, the problem that normativity solves does not arise.)

      I don’t understand the move to the last sentence, unless you want to say that the problem of normativity only arises because we have present desires that compete with or frustrate instrumental reasoning to our longer-term goals.

      I don’t disagree that we do have present desires that frustrate instrumental reasoning, and that that’s one aspect of the problem of normativity. But I take the problem of normativity, more fundamentally, to be the question: why is it that free agents have to follow norms of instrumental rationality at all? That’s what I take Rand to be asking at the beginning of “The Objectivist Ethics,” and I think it’s the right way of thinking about normativity.

      Put somewhat differently: the problem of normativity arises because we need an account of why it is that there are norms of counterfactually stable goal-pursuit. Take an agent who has a present desire D, ratifies that desire (and the goals it implies) as choiceworthy, and then satisfies the desire by employing (resolving to follow) norms of instrumental rationality. Suppose the agent’s natural inclination is such, and resolution is such, that she never has a present desire contrary to D (or the instrumental norms required to realize D).

      The problem of normativity still arises: why is it that she needs to ratify the desire as choiceworthy and resolve to follow norms? One reason is that she might have present desires that militated against its pursuit. But there might also be external obstacles to its pursuit unrelated to her present desires. The agent has to have the internal resources to get around the external obstacles to goal pursuit. And the problem of “getting around the obstacles” may not be that she has a present desire to stop or give up. She has to experience achievement of the goal as sufficiently urgent to surmount the obstacles to it, even if she has no present desire to abandon the pursuit. That, it seems to me, is a different problem than the one you’re describing, but it’s part of the problem of normativity.

      Bottom line: I don’t so much disagree with what you’re saying as regard it as too narrowly formulated. But this could just be an Objectivist hangover of mine–one of the few Randian claims that I’m still hanging on to,

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  3. The proposal is indeed that normativity arises only because of the *functional* problem of desires that would make us deviate from a given, activity-relative functional good-instrumental-reasoning standard (adherence to which makes us tend to achieve desired goals). Because of this, if we are to stick to the functional standard (and tend to achieve desired goals), we need to, at some level, be aware of the standard and adhere to it through a distinctive “holding ourselves to it” kind of motivation with respect to being instrumentally rational. There is something like a choice to be made between having oneself stick to this standard or, in this respect, being a wanton. I think this corresponds to what you are calling the normative problem. But on this proposal, at the agential juncture here, there is no issue of adopting some other standard (maybe an intuitively perverse anti-instrumental standard). That seems like a difference. Maybe there is a “normative problem” of why be instrumentally rational as against being a wanton in this respect? What I want to say here is that the proposal concerns what normativity is. Once this is explained, in some case, the directionality question gets answered automatically for that case. If we are implicitly thinking of normativity as (unexplained) directionality or valence and then we just ask, all-doe-eyed ‘now what direction do we go in?’ we are, in effect, abstracting away the relevant information for answering the directionality question – and we’ll find ourselves at sea in trying to come up with an answer. That’s all pretty off-the-cuff. But maybe that makes the proposal a bit more clear (and distinguishes my treatment here from some other ways of thinking about what normativity is and what it “tells us to do”)?

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