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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Jonathan Dancy

Jonathan Dancy is an epistemologist and moral philosopher who argues for moral particularism, the idea that there are no absolute moral principles. There are no invariant reasons that contribute to moral decisions in the very same way no matter what the context of the situation. Reasons are variable, contextual, and dependent on the other reasons that are relevant in the situation.

He describes a "holism of reasons." Responsiveness to reasons requires that each reason be evaluated in the context of all - the whole of - the relevant reasons that apply to a moral situation. He says, "This is the doctrine that what is a reason in one case may be no reason at all in another, or even a reason on the other side. In ethics, a feature that makes one action better can make another one worse, and make no difference at all to a third."

Although moral principles are often thought to be absolutes - e.g., keep your promises, do the just thing, act for the best, don't cause harm - which are uttered with invariant qualifiers like "always" or "never," Dancy argues that they should be considered no more absolute than practical and prudential reasons. His main goal is to attack the generalist conception under which a moral reason must be categorical in the Kantian sense, it must function in the same way, favoring the same actions, for example, in all situations. To be a moral particularist is to claim, as Dancy does, that any reason is capable of being altered by changes in context, and Dancy excels in developing many examples of such alterations, even reversals.

As a particularist, specific examples are an excellent method, but Dancy also attempts to form a general (sic) theory of moral reasoning, of practical or normative reasoning especially. It is a difficult enterprise to develop a theory of practice in which there are in theory no best practices! As an epistemologist, Dancy's theory of theoretical reason is the same holistic view, i.e.,

  • A reason in one situation that favors a conclusion to a belief or action may in another situation disfavor the conclusion.
  • The way in which reasons contribute to the conclusion is a complex function of the other contributory reasons present and not a simple adding up of the weights of independent reasons
Dancy applies this one holistic view to theoretical reasoning and practical reasoning.

Normative reasons are all contributory, one among many reasons that are considered. There is rarely if ever an "overall" reason. Although when we give an account and answer to why we acted in such and such a way, or why we hold such and such a belief, we may cite a single reason, this is to follow conventional ideas about absolute moral principles derived from traditional "virtues," which Dancy questions.

He says that truly absolute principles could not conflict with one another, and conflict is often the essence of a moral problem. The apparent lack of conflict is a result of claiming that there is always a dominant or "best" reason.

In his 2002 book, Practical Reality, Dancy explores the reasons why we should act (normative reasons), distinguishing them from those for which we do act (motivating reasons), and more generally the reasons why we act. He says:

Motivating reasons are supposed to be the ones that actually made a difference to how he acted; they constitute the light in which he chose to do what he did. Normative reasons are the ones we try to cite in favour of an action, because they are the ones that should show that the action was sensible or right or whatever. So if an agent does something extremely silly, we might say he had a motivating reason for doing what he did but little normative reason. What this means is that we can give a certain sort of explanation for his acting as he did, but we cannot defend it.

If we do speak in this way, of motivating and normative reasons, this should not be taken to suggest that there are two sorts of reason, the sort that motivate and the sort that are good. There are not. There are just two questions that we use the single notion of a reason to answer. When I call a reason ‘motivating’, all that I am doing is issuing a reminder that the focus of our attention is on matters of motivation, for the moment. When I call it ‘normative’, again all that I am doing is stressing that we are currently thinking about whether it is a good reason, one that favours acting in the way proposed...

We can normally explain an agent's doing what he did by specifying the reasons in the light of which he acted. But there are other ways of explaining an action — ways that do not involve specifying the agent's reason. For instance, we might say that the reason why he did this was that he had forgotten his promise to her. In so explaining his action, we are not involved in laying out the reasons in the light of which he acted. We are not supposing that the considerations that he took to favour the action included that he had forgotten his promise to her. When we mention the fact that he had forgotten his promise, we mention something of which he was wholly unconscious, and which could not have been among his reasons for acting.

Beliefs, Desires, and Intentions
Dancy describes Humean (and perhaps Kantian - deontological?) views of motivation.
There is a classic position in the theory of motivation that is known as Humeanism, despite the fact that it bears little resemblance to the views of its supposed progenitor, David Hume. The basic claim made by this theory is that intentional actions are to be explained by reference to the beliefs and desires of the agent. For an intentional action to take place, its agent must have a suitable combination of beliefs and desires. There must be something that the agent wants, an aim or goal which the proposed action subserves in some way...

It is possible to object to Humeanism on the very simple grounds that we often do things that we do not want to do, either in themselves or as means to some end that we want to pursue or promote. Certainly, the ordinary use of the word ‘desire’ is restricted in a way that would render ridiculous any claim that all action is motivated by desire; its main use nowadays seems to be in sexual contexts. But when philosophers speak of desire, at least in the context of the theory of motivation, they are to some extent constructing a term of art. I may say that I am doing this because it is my duty, though I have no desire to do it whatever. The reply is that I must none the less take a positive attitude to some aspect of what I am doing—a ‘pro‐attitude’, in current terms owed to W. D. Ross. And the current philosophical use of the term ‘desire’ takes it to be equivalent to this much broader notion of a pro‐attitude. In this sense it becomes much more plausible to say that all action is motivated by desire.

Hume famously distinguished between beliefs as theoretical reasons for action versus desires (the passions) as the true motivations for action. Dancy connects this to the psychological states of the agent, defending a position he calls "psychologism" (not to be confused with the Frege and Husserl problems).
Pure cognitivism accepts two central features of the Humean picture. The first of these is the asymmetry of belief and desire, i.e. the fact that belief and desire play quite different roles in motivation; this is captured in the distinction between two directions of fit. Pure cognitivism accepts that asymmetry, in accepting that what belief does desire cannot do, and vice versa. But it rejects the characteristic Humean stress on the dominance of desire in the generation of motivation. Desire is not the leading partner in anything, even though desire is a state that is out to change the world to be the way it wants, while belief is merely out to represent the world as it is.

Pure cognitivism also accepts the Humean claim that desire is an independent existence, with its own phenomenology. Desires occur, and they may have a distinctive ‘feel’, at least on occasion (the strong ones, probably). Their occurrence is required for motivation, but this is not surprising, since to desire is just to be motivated, and being motivated can have a distinctive feel.

There is, however, a further thing that pure cognitivism took unexamined from Humeanism, and this is much more significant than the two mentioned above. This is the idea that the theory of motivating states, as conceived by Humeans, constitutes or is the theory of acting for a reason—the theory of motivating reasons. To put it another way, Humeans presume that the theory of motivation is the theory of motivating reasons, and that this theory is to be written in terms of motivating states of the agent. The question we were debating was whether such reasons could be beliefs—whether a belief alone could be a reason for acting, in particular a moral belief—or whether there needed also to be a desire. If desire dominates belief in motivation, then it would be true to say that our desires are the ‘real’ reasons why we act. If not, beliefs could be reasons too, reasons as real as the desires. But this debate is premissed on something itself hidden but still eminently debatable, namely that our motivating reasons are psychological states of ourselves. I call this view psychologism. We were not arguing about psychologism; we took it for granted, and argued only about which psychological states were involved, and in which combinations.

Dancy argues that good practical reasons are not based on the agent's desires and that they are not based on the agent's beliefs either. Beyond good reasons is the topic of motivation. He claims that pure cognitivism is the soundest form of psychologism in the theory of motivation as standardly conceived, but that we should nevertheless not accept any form of psychologism. We should attempt to understand the reasons that motivate us as features of the situation rather than as features of ourselves.

He argues that motivating reasons are not mental states of the agent but (real or supposed) states of affairs. Since a reason to act (a good reason) is a state of affairs, the reasons in the light of which we act must also be capable of being states of affairs, for otherwise it would be impossible to act for a good reason. Our reasons are what we believe rather than that we so believe, or our so believing.

Dancy considers and rejects the view that motivating reasons are best specified in psychological form (S's reason was that he believed that . . .) rather than in non‐psychological form (S's reason was that . . .). He asks how we should then explain the fact that, if S acts for the reason that p, S must believe that p.

He discusses whether the account of motivating reasons that he gives is either itself causal or at least compatible with a causal account, but concludes that such causal explanations cannot be accounts of the reasons for which the agent acted; we cannot have two such accounts in play at once (overdetermination?).

To accept causes, even the reasons or beliefs as causes per se, would be to put the responsibility on the causes rather than on the agent (compare Jonathan Lowe, who says he is following Dancy).

Ethics without Principles
In his 2006 book, Dancy classifies various purported contributory reasons into three kinds of relevance - favoring/disfavoring, enabling/disabling, and intensifying/attenuating. These exhibit the kinds of dependencies between the various reasons that make reasons ultimately context-dependent, viz. dependent on the other particular reasons present.

He offers the following piece of practical ‘reasoning’:

1. I promised to do it.
2. My promise was not given under duress.
3. I am able to do it.
4. There is no greater reason not to do it.
5. So: I do it.

Note here that there is a similar train of thought that ends not with (5) as presented, but with:

5*. So I ought to do it.

Premise (1) is a clear favorer. Premise (3) seems (literally) to be an enabler. If "ought" implies "can," absent (3) would be a disabler relevant to (5*).

What of (2)? The opposite of (2) would clearly disable the favorer (1). And given a greater reason (4) overriding the promise would also be a disabler.

What then are contributory reasons that merely strengthen a favoring premise? Dancy gives another example

1. She is in trouble and needs help.
2. I am the only other person around.
3. So: I help her.
Premise (2) makes a difference that intensifies the conclusion. But now consider
1. She is in trouble and needs help.
2. It is all her own fault, and she got in this situation through trying to spite someone else.
3. But still: I help her.
Here (2) is the opposite of an intensifier that Dancy calls an attenuator. It does not reverse the favoring reason (1), but weakens it.
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