boogie-nights Ronnie and Portmore’s “teleological conception of practical reasons” (TCR)

I’m reading some bits of Doug Portmore’s book, Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein Morality Meets Rationality.  According to Portmore’s “teleological conception of practical reasons” (TCR) — Chapter Three — all practical reasons are a function of reasons to desire outcomes:  if X has reason to perform A this is because X has reason to desire the possible world (or set of possible worlds) in which X performs A. Moreover, because reasons to desire outcomes can be agent-relative but desirability or fitting-desire is a function of agent-neutral reasons, such a view is not a “desirability-based” or “value-based” theory of practical reasons (that then passes the normative buck to objective desire-fittingness, in particular agent-neutral reasons of fitting desire).

I have some concerns about this theory, mainly about whether the relevant desires for outcomes here are important (descriptively) and whether the relevant reasons to have such desires are important (normatively).  But I want to see how this view does, how it goes, for a standard case of what are often thought of as desire-based (not reasons-to-desire-based) reasons for action.  Intuitively, it seems like this sort of case should be hard for TCR to handle (and in any case I want to work out how TCR interprets or explains such cases).

So, Mark Schroeder’s “Ronnie.”  Ronnie loves to dance. And so, in the broad sense of ‘desire’ in common philosophical usage, Ronnie desires the state of affairs of his own dancing.  And so — Schroeder’s story goes — Ronnie has reason to realize or promote his dancing on any given occasion and, in particular, he presently has reason to take the particular action of going to some particular dance party.  So let’s apply TCR to Ronnie having reason to go to the dance party. On TCR, this is necessarily correlated with and explained by Ronnie having reason to desire to go to the dance party (or to desire the world or a world in which this happens).  

Now, though TCR says nothing about what makes for reasons to desire (and thus leaves open the idea that reasons to desire are themselves be psychological or specifically desire-based), it does rule this out:  that Ronnie’s loving to dance is what provides the direct, fundamental explanation of both his having reason to go to the party and his having reason to desire to go to the party. But isn’t this common-cause-style explanation pretty plausible (and, in particular, more plausible than Ronnie having reason to go to the party because he has reason to desire to go to the party)?  

Portmore might reply that, in this sort of case at least, the second thing (reasons to desire) explains the first thing (reasons to perform action that realizes or promotes what one has reason to desire) by way of the agent actually having a desire (the desire to dance generally) that in this case happens to be closely related to the desire that the agent has reason to exhibit (the desire to go to this dance party).  My reply: I’m just not impressed with the idea of granting Ronnie’s having reason to desire to go to the party this much explanatory power.  In fact, I worry that reasons to desire worlds in which one performs some action are too close to (too close to being identical to) reasons to perform the action to be of much explanatory use.

(I agree with Portmore — and what is, I think, fairly called the received view — that we can “consequentialize” all of the practical normative and evaluative things.  Including the common core of all requirements — the must-do-ness of all of the things that we must do. It seems likely that the formal property uncovered or defined by this move is explanatory relative to the task of tying together disparate normative and evaluative things that might seem categorically different.  That’s not unimportant.  But it need not be super-relevant to the explanatory task of providing a unified substantive account of all practical reasons.)

Does it seem right that TCR would handle the putatively desire-based practical reasons cases in this way?  (Portmore does not seem to consider such cases in the context of considering common-cause objections to the explanatory direction of the biconditional going in the direction that he says it does.  He considers, and rejects, on the grounds that better generates only agent-neutral reasons, the idea that one relevant action-involving outcome being better than the other could explain both the reasons to desire the outcome and the reasons to perform the action.  An analogous criticism would not apply to the case of “boogie-nights” Ronnie and his wanting to shake it all out whenever he gets the chance.)

11 thoughts on “boogie-nights Ronnie and Portmore’s “teleological conception of practical reasons” (TCR)

  1. Coming back to this, I do think that DP would say what I say he would say in the Ronnie case: (a) having most reason to *desire* to go to this dance party explains (b) having most reason to *go* to this dance party, but [b] is explained by (c) Ronnie loving to dance (Ronnie’s general desire to dance). And, as far as I can tell, DP does not rule out [c] being a common-cause explanation of both [a] and [b].

    However, what I find most fundamentally odd about DP’s teleological view of reasons is, as indicated above, the role that having sufficient or most reason to desire the world in which one PHIs plays in generating one having most reason to PHI. If, for simplicity, we focus on impersonal value and reasons of fitting desire, it is quite plausible that the right explanatory story goes something like this: it is appropriate for X to *intrinsically* desire items J and K and, if these are the only things at stake in choosing between options 1, 2, and 3 and only the third option promotes them at all, X ought to desire the world in which she chooses the third option. And, for the same reason — and more to the point — she ought to choose the third option! This is (one version of) a more traditional value-based reasons approach, wedded to a fitting-desire or fitting-valuation account of value or desirability (and such an approach is teleological in DP’s sense — practical reasons are a function of realizing or promoting appropriate aims, not just desired aims). But on this approach, having sufficient or most reason to desire the world-outcome associated with choosing 3 does not do important explanatory work. (This might be framed as a competing common-cause explanation of reasons to PHI and reasons to desire the world in which one PHIs. Both are explained by our having sufficient or most reason — here, agent-neutral reasons of fittingness — to intrinsically desire J as against not and to intrinsically desire K as against not.)

    In this way, I think both traditional desire-based and traditional value-based views (with or without a fitting-attitudes account of value) of practical reasons speak against DP’s teleological conception of reasons (TCR) — or his particular version of this, if we take ‘TCR’ to refer to a whole family of views. Plausibly, they both say that having reasons to desire the world in which one PHIs and having reasons to PHI are both explained by something else — so that the first thing cannot play an important role in explaining the second thing. As this result is both intuitive and has some plausible theoretical backing from different received quarters, it is incumbent on DP to say why reasons to desire PHI-ing-associated world-outcomes explain reasons to PHI.

    However, I like the idea of cashing out both personal and impersonal value in terms of reasons to desire or value and then cashing out reasons for action in terms of these (agent-relative and agent-neutral) reasons. This is the heart of what DP calls the teleological approach to practical reasons. It is the idea that practical reasons are a function of promoting appropriate aims (and though perhaps aims can be made appropriate in part by desiring them — maybe the case with Schroeder’s Ronnie — it is not the desiring that does the important work). But the story here goes quite differently if something like having sufficient or most reason to intrinsically value various items — not reasons to generically desire or value overall world-outcomes associated with actions — does the practical-reasons-explanatory work. And I suspect that a version of “consequentializing” is as coherent and promising in this kind of teleological framework as it is in DP’s “reasons to generically desire option-associated world-outcomes” teleological approach.

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  2. “all practical reasons are a function of reasons to desire outcomes”

    As opposed to what? What’s the contrast to reasons to desire outcomes?

    I kind of wish that Schroeder had picked a different name for his character. I can’t focus on the example without thinking of this. Or was that the point?

    Not a particularly salient or cogent objection, I realize.

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    • One thing this idea is opposed to is X’s practical reason to PHI being a function of the (impersonal) value promoted by X’s PHI-ing — the traditional value-based account of reasons for action. It is also opposed to the directly psychological or desire-based account of reasons for action (explored by Mark Schroeder in his book). One element of DP’s view that I like is that, by integrating both universal reasons of fitting desire (as an account of impersonal value) and particular-to-the-agent reasons to desire (as an account of personal value or perhaps wellbeing or an aspect of wellbeing), he gets an integrated “teleological” or appropriate-end-dependent view that is neither simply egoistic nor simply impersonal-value-maximizing. This seems like the right sort of result to get, though the devil is in the details. However, I’m coming to the conclusion that this virtue in his view is outweighed by a bunch of implausible stuff that does not work (especially the idea that reasons to generically desire this action-associated overall outcome over that can do much work in explaining having more reason to take this option as against that).

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      • I guess I’d have to read it (or maybe get more immersed in the literature) to really get it. Having reason to promote a desired outcome and having reason to promote impersonal value doesn’t strike me as a clear contrast.

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