Oxford Studies in Metaethics: Volume II
How can a false belief explain why you have a reason to give up your kidney? Suppose your belief is true; perhaps your commitment is the recog- nition that your relationship has special value. Can your recognition of this fact explain why you have a reason to give him your kidney? Why think that the recog- nition plays any role in explaining the reasons you have over and above the fact that your relationship has special value?
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It is not the recognition that would explain your special reasons but its content—the fact that your relationship has special value. Desires and desire-like states Perhaps a commitment is a set of structured desires or dispositions concern- ing the object of commitment that is had for the sake of that object, or a set of distinctive emotions towards the object. Or it might be a matter of caring about him or loving him for his own sake, where this caring and loving in turn consists in a set of dispositions to do things, such as to give him your kidney and to empty his bedpan when the need arises.
It seems odd, how- ever, to think that my reason to give Harry my kidney is explained by my believing that I have a reason to give Harry my kidney or that my relationship with Harry has special value on the grounds that I will have such a reason by merely believing that I have the reason that y relationship has special value.
While Vellemaniacal belief may explain some phenomena, such as intentions, it does not help us to understand the nature of commitments. See also Frankfurt , , Although this approach may at first pass seem to be a promising way to think about commitments, it conflates what is essential to commitments with what is a typical consequence or element of having made one. Like beliefs, desires and their ilk have the wrong relation to volition.
You can decide to commit to Harry and thereby be committed to him, but you can- not decide to want his life to go well, or decide to be disposed to empty his bedpan, or decide to feel affection towards him and thereby want or be dis- posed to do or feel these things.
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Try as hard as you might, you cannot come to want something simply by deciding to want it. Endorsement or identification If a commitment is an endorsement of a mental state such as a desire, and endorsement is volitional, we succeed in accounting for the first feature of commitments that has caused us trouble so far: endorsements are things that you can decide to make.
Endorsing or identifying with a desire, for instance, is often thought to be willing that the desire be efficacious in action. Neither beliefs nor desires are states one can plausibly decide to have, and presumably an amalgam of them is also beyond decision. This opens large issues about what kinds of consid- erations can explain why you have a reason which I catalogue and criticize in my b. For a compelling set of arguments as to why desires and desire-like states cannot explain why we have reasons, see Parfit Moreover, it can be rational to endorse a desire and rational not to.
So the endorsement approach satisfies the first three desiderata for an account of the nature of commitments. But there are other difficulties. When you will that your desire move you to action, the object of your willing is your desire. But when you commit to Harry or to your relationship with him, your commitment does not seem to be directed inward, towards your own mental states.
Commitments are directed out- ward, towards something outside of oneself. You would have a reason to give Harry your kidney because you willed that your desires concerning Harry be satisfied. This is the mock commitment of a narcissist. The unhappy wife who has no desire to be with her husband may nevertheless be committed to him. The middle-aged man who has no desire to exercise may nevertheless be committed to his morning calisthenics.
The swinging bach- elor who has no desire to care for the child of a dead relative might commit to raising it as his own. Nor does it help to suggest that commitments are endorsements of counterfactual desires, desires you would have had if you were less resentful, lazy, or selfish, since commitments seem in some sense to reflect not just who you want to be but who you already are. None of 18 You also make them your own in the sense of being owned by you rather than sim- ply occurring in your life. See Frankfurt Some commitments may be volitionally necessary, but not all of them need be.
You might commit to the project of sticking with your desire to be a better person. The object of commitment may seem to be outward looking—to being a better person—but it is yourself. Decisions, intentions, plans, and policies Perhaps a commitment is a decision, intention, or plan to do something. On this view, when you decide to commit to Harry, you decide to decide to do these various things.
Again, this suggestion captures the right relation between the will and commitments; just as you can decide to commit, you can decide to decide, intend, or plan to do something. Moreover, a decision or intention can be a discrete event in time, and an intention or plan can persist through time. Finally, unlike the previous approach, understanding commitments as essentially a decision, intention, or plan to do something gives them an object apart from our own attitudes.
So far, so good. But there are some serious problems. Just think about it. When you make a commitment to Harry, you need not thereby be deciding, intending or planning to do anything in particular.
A com- mitment is, intuitively, a kind of internal pledge or binding of yourself to someone, not a list of decisions, intentions, or plans to do things. Nor can a commitment plausibly be understood as a set of conditional such-states.
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For our purposes, both intentions and deci- sions are possible objects of decision. As we move towards the more substantive cases of commit- ment, commitment no longer seems to track intention since the content of what is intended cannot be read off directly from the commitment. But policies, strictly understood as general intentions to do things, however amorphously specified, suffer from a further problem shared by their specific counterparts; they run afoul of the fourth desideratum.
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How can a specific intention to do something in a specific circumstance explain why one has a reason to do that thing in those circumstances? And how can a general intention to do something across a more broadly specified range of circumstances explain why one has a reason to do what one intends to do in a specific circumstance? Consider specific intentions first. How can a specific decision, intention, or plan to do something specific in a specific circumstance explain why one has a reason to do that thing?
But you may have no reason to intend to kill someone with a chainsaw. Your intention to do something can, however, explain what reasons you have in an indirect way. Other phi- losophers have argued that decisions can play normative roles beyond explaining why we have certain reasons. See also Nozick Chrisoula Andreou suggests that intentions can rationally transition an agent from one deliberative frame- work to another—by intending to x, you can alter what it is structurally rational for you to regard as your choice situation.
None of the usual forms of consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, perfectionism or pluralist theories defend principles according to which you can have a normative reason to do something simply by intend- ing to do it. But even if these downstream effects figure as antecedent conditions of a normative principle whereby you then have a special reason, these effects are contingent. You can intend to do good by Harry without having any particular accompanying mental attitude. And, again, it is highly implausible to think that there is a normative principle according to which if you intend to do good by Harry, you have a special normative reason to give him your kidney.
What plausible normative theory could make intentions so powerful? Of course, having certain intentions can affect the normative landscape of your reasons in many different ways. But it is hard to believe that having an intention to do good by Harry could, as a substantive normative matter, be sufficient for your having a special rea- son to give him your kidney, let alone in the specific circumstances in which he needs one.
Once again, your intention to do good by him can affect your structural rationality—it is, other things equal, structurally rational for you to follow through on your policies—but this is not to say that your having a general intention to do something is sufficient for your having a reason to do some specific thing in specific circumstances. But there is another possibility. It might be a condition under which you have a reason to have some other attitude, however, in which case what we have is not a normative principle concerning reasons but a principle of structural rationality.
A final suggestion along these lines. So per- haps a commitment is a self-governing policy to treat certain considerations as reasons in your deliberations. However, since his self-governing policies get closest to what I believe is correct about commit- ments, it might be instructive to see why they fail for our purposes.
A general intention to treat certain considerations as reasons is a plan to treat those considerations as if they were reasons. The truth of whether they are reasons is no part of having these attitudes. But this raises a dilemma. Then your attitude of treating them as reasons is intrinsically irrational and cannot explain why you have those reasons. We should want the clear-eyed, ideal rational agent to be able to make commitments.
But how could a perfectly rational agent give a consideration weight in her deliberations that she knows it does not have? Suppose instead that the considerations you treat as reasons are reasons. How then can the intention to treat them as reasons explain why they are reasons? The core difficulty is that these intentions essentially involve a kind of pretence; you treat a consideration as a reason independently of whether it 32 Bratman 39 and In short, it is unclear how pretending that you have a reason can explain why you have it.
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As we have seen, each of these states either runs afoul of one of our desiderata or suffers from other difficulties. Nor would combining them into an amalgam or cluster of attitudes help; the failure of one mental state to satisfy a desidera- tum is grounds for rejecting it as essential to the nature of commitments, and it does not help to pile on additional problematic states. Valuing a relationship is an amalgam of mental states and psychic susceptibilities. And if, by hypothesis, a commitment explains why one has special reasons of committed relationships, valuing cannot be in what a commitment consists.
But I believe his account does not cover the special reasons we have in committed relationships that arise out of our commitments.
Our views can be understood as complementary parts of a larger picture of reasons of personal relationships. See also Scheffler and chs. Note that Scanlon ch. When you make a commitment, typically you will end up having various mental states, but these upshots of making a commitment should not be confused with the nature of commit- ment itself.
A commitment is rather an activity; it is something you do. It is, in particular, a volitional activity, an activity of the will.