Michael A. SmithMichael Smith is a moral philosopher who specializes in meta-ethics, an investigation of the preconditions of everyday normative ethics. In a 1987 Mind article, The Humean Theory of Motivation, Smith defended the claims of David Hume that actions can only be motivated by desires (Hume called them the "Passions"), and not by mere reasons, which are sets of beliefs (possibly "true") about facts in the world. Smith reads Hume as claiming that motivation has its source in a relevant desire and the agent's beliefs about means and ends that could achieve the goal desired. Anti-Humeans or Non-Humeans (who tend to be Kantians) find the source of normative behavior in the reasons themselves, which are taken to be objective facts in the world. They stress "reasons-responsiveness." Of course, reasoning about the world might lead to an intention or a desire to change it. Whereas Hume the Skeptic is famous for the fact/value distinction and the claim that we cannot derive "ought" from "is" (no facts of the matter lead logically to norms or the way things "should be"), Hume the Naturalist accepts many human beliefs and desires. For example, his skepticism leads to the conclusion that we cannot logically prove the existence of causality. But we have a natural belief in causality and the existence of the external world. In his 1994 book The Moral Problem, Smith argues that moral arguments are a species of rational arguments. He says it is a distinctive feature of practical morality that the participants want to get the answers to moral questions "right". This gives rise to the meta-ethical question about the objective existence of correct answers to moral questions. Information philosophy regards all normative moral reasoning to be relative to a culture, or at best to living systems, so normative moral reasons are arrived at by inter-subjective agreement within a culture. Moral facts are not "right" or "true" apart from the community holding them. Smith contrasts the "objectivity of moral judgement" (p.6), which he agrees is merely a convergence of moral opinions, with the "practicality" of moral judgement (p.7), which are opinions about reasons for our behavior, which in turn are motivations for our actions. The first, "objectivity" view, is committed to the existence of moral facts among the various facts in the world. (Information philosophy, and Quine for example, sees science as the standard for objective facts in the world.) The second, "practicality" view, is simply that we find ourselves motivated by a desire to act, and usually with a belief about the means and ends needed to achieve our goal, if need be changing the world to fit our desires. R. Jay Wallace (in his 1990 Mind article How to Argue about Practical Reason, reprinted in his book The Normativity of the Will) cites Smith for the teleological argument that goal-directed states of mind (intentions to act) require more than rational principles. Specifically, the intentional state is more than a rational representation of the current content of the world. It is a desire to change the world to fit the goal. (This is reminiscent of Marx's famous comment on the eleventh thesis of Feuerbach, "The point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.") Wallace says that Smith's argument is extremely straightforward and conforms to what Wallace calls the "desire-out, desire-in" principle.
Smith's own presentation of his position is succinct enough to be quoted virtually in its entirety:In a 1990 essay written with Philip Pettit (Backgrounding Desire), Smith argues that while desires are always present in the genesis of human action, the agent might not consciously reflect on the desire. It may be in the background of decision-making and not apparent in deliberations. Beliefs tht function as means-ends reasons for action may also often be in the unconscious background of deliberations. Pettit and Smith see many analogies between desires and beliefs. In a 1993 essay (Practical Unreason), Pettit and Smith argue that human beings have alternative possibilities for deliberation and action.A motivated desire is a desire had for a reason; that is, a desire the having of which furthers some goal that the agent has. The agent's having this goal is, in turn, inter alia, the state that constitutes the motivating reason that he has for having the desire.... But if the state that motivates the desire is itself a reason, and the having of this reason is itself constituted by his having a goal, then, given that the having of a goal is a state with which the world must fit rather than vice versa . . . , so it follows ... that the state that motivates the desire must itself be a desire. Thus, the Humean will say, the idea that there may be a state that motivates a desire, but which is not itself a desire, is simply implausible.The structure of this argument is extremely straightforward. A motivated desire, Smith notes, is one that is explicable in terms of reasons. But reason explanations are essentially teleological, attributing a goal to the person who has the reason; and to have a goal is already to be in a state of desire. Of course that further desire may itself be motivated by a reason, but simple iteration of Smith's teleological argument suffices to show that the chain of explanations must eventually terminate in an unmotivated desire.
Human beings, we assume, are deliberative agents. As they face a choice, they are capable of registering considerations relevant, by their own lights, to what should be done: thus they can register that these are the alternative options and those the associated possible outcomes, that one option has this set of desirable features, another a different set, and so on. They are capable, furthermore, of registering that the considerations overall support one or another choice: they can recognize the import of the desirable features registered. And they are capable, finally, of being moved by such a pattern of reasoning: they are capable of making this or that choice in response to the recognition that it is the most strongly supported alternative.That humans have such alternative possibilities appears to conflict with Pettit's and Smith's views on free will. They are both compatibilist determinists. To escape the conflict, they argue that humans are free to do otherwise if it would avoid doing some wrong. It makes no sense, they say, to have a freedom to do something that is not right. They give up on the ideal of autonomy or "self-rule" in favor of what they called in their earlier essays "orthonomy" or right rule. This appears to be an amalgam of ancient views that freedom consists of doing the moral thing (Aquinas, Kant) or doing the rational thing (Wolf). Information philosophy regards these views as errors that we call the ethical fallacy and the rational fallacy. As Pettit and Smith write in their 1996 essay (Freedom in Belief and Desire)
We want to show why the account of responsible believing and desiring ... is, precisely, an account of how responsible believers and desirers can enjoy freedom in the matter of what they believe and of what they desire and do. Responsibility or orthonomy in belief means that people enjoy free thought. Responsibility or orthonomy in desire means that people enjoy free will. Freedom in the sense associated with free will is traditionally defined in terms of the ability of the agent, for anything they do, always to have done otherwise. A believer or desirer would be free in this sense to the extent that no matter what he believes or desires, he is such that he could always have believed and he could always have desired otherwise. Freedom in such an unqualified sense if, indeed, it deserves to be called 'freedom' at all — would not be particularly attractive from our point of view. If an agent believes or desires rightly according to the evidence and the values, then there will be nothing attractive in itself about being such that he could have believed or desired otherwise. Believing or desiring otherwise will simply be a matter of his getting it wrong, and so doing much worse than he actually did. The ability to have believed or desired otherwise will be something inherently attractive from our point of view only so far as it is the person's ability for anything that is not rightly believed or desired always to have believed or desired otherwise. We argue that responsible believers and desirers are free in the sense of having this ability.This asymmetry between freedom - we have it when we correct our errors and act morally, we lack freedom when we do something irrational or immoral - echoes the asymmetry noted by Susan Wolf between blame and praise. We accept freedom and responsibility for our praiseworthy actions, but claim we are determined when we do something wrong. This parallels another human weakness - to regard our victories in playing a game as due to our skills, but regard our failures as simply a matter of bad luck.