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“Because I Want It”*

  • Stephen Darwall (a1)

How can an agent's desire or will give him reasons for acting? Not long ago, this might have seemed a silly question, since it was widely believed that all reasons for acting are based in the agent's desires. The interesting question, it seemed, was not how what an agent wants could give him reasons, but how anything else could. In recent years, however, this earlier orthodoxy has increasingly appeared wrongheaded as a growing number of philosophers have come to stress the action-guiding role of reasons in deliberation from the agent's point of view. What a deliberating agent has in view is rarely his own will or desires as such, even if taking something as a reason is intimately tied to desire. Someone who wants to escape a burning building does not evaluate her options by considering which is likeliest to realize what she wants or wills. She is focused, rather, on her desire's object: getting out alive. The fact that a successful route would realize something she wants is apt to strike her as beside the point or, at best, as a trivial bonus.

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1 Where ‘desire’ is understood in the broad sense, as any disposition an agent might have to bring something about. I shall generally follow this usage.

2 For earlier criticisms of this view, see Nagel Thomas, The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970); Bond E. J., Reason and Value (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and Darwall Stephen, Impartial Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983). For more recent critiques, see Pettit Philip and Smith Michael, “Backgrounding Desire,” Philosophical Review 99, no. 4 (1990): 565–92; Quinn Warren, “Putting Rationality in Its Place,” in Quinn , Morality and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 228–55; and Scanlon T. M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 4155.

3 On this latter point, see Scanlon , What We Owe to Each Other, 3941.

4 Pettit and Smith , “Backgrounding Desire.”

5 I take the term “deliberative field” from Herman Barbara, The Practice of Moral Judgment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 193207.

6 Nagel , The Possibility of Altruism, 2930.

7 Nagel argues that this is true, for example, of moral and prudential reasons. Ibid., 29.

8 Or, at least, it is guaranteed that we ought to believe the truth on some matter if we have any beliefs on it at all. For discussion of the idea that belief has this “constitutive aim” and of whether desire does, see Velleman J. David, “The Possibility of Practical Reason,” Ethics 106, no. 4 (1996): 707–26. A problem with the view in the text might be that even if belief's constitutive aim is correct representation, it cannot follow directly that we ought to believe truths (or not believe falsehoods), because such an ‘ought’ would have to be categorical, and for that to follow it would also have to be true that belief's aim is one we ought to have. An alternative picture might be to treat it as a conceptual truth that beliefs ought to be regulated by the truth (or the world), since, from the first-person point of view, deliberation about what to believe is no different from inquiry into what is true. Whatever the details, however, what seems clear is that it is of the nature of belief that it is regulated by something (truth, or the world) that is what it is independently of norms for belief. I am indebted here to some work by, and discussion with, Nishiten Shah.

9 As David Velleman puts it, “When someone believes a proposition … his acceptance of it is regulated in ways designed to promote acceptance of the truth,” whereas, for example, when “someone assumes a proposition, he or his cognitive faculties are disposed to regulate his acceptance of it in ways designed to promote the ends of argument or inquiry,” and so on. Velleman J. David, “The Guise of the Good,” Noûs 16, no. 1 (1992): 14.

10 See, for example, Smith Michael, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 111–19. Smith cites Platts Mark, Ways of Meaning (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 256–57; Platts attributes the idea to Anscombe G. E. M., Intention (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957).

11 See note 8 above.

12 The “value” at issue here is not “agent-relative value” (that is, not value to the agent — either value-as-the-agent-sees-it, or value from the agent's point of view, or benefit to the agent [the agent's good]), but rather what is called “agent-neutral value” or value period. For the distinction between “agent-relative” and “agent-neutral” generally, see Nagel Thomas, “The Limits of Objectivity,” in McMurrin Sterling M., ed., The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1980), 97139; Nagel Thomas, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 164–88; Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 314; Scheffler Samuel, The Rejection of Consequentialism, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994); and McNaughton David and Rawling Piers, “Agent-Relativity and Terminological Inexactitudes,” Utilitas 7, no. 2 (1995): 319–25. For the relevance of this distinction to value in particular, see Sen Amartya, “Evaluator Relativity and Consequential Evaluation,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 12, no. 2 (1983): 113–32.

13 Using ‘desire’ in the broad functionalist sense given by its direction of fit. So understood, desires will include many things that could usefully be distinguished in a more fine-grained analysis: intentions, instances of norm acceptance, emotions, and so on.

14 Unless, of course, the satisfaction of desire has value in itself, but, as I discuss further in Section IV, this seems implausible when we reflect on desire's direction of fit.

By a “subjectively reasonable” view of the world, I mean whatever beliefs are supported by evidence available to the person.

15 That is, they fail to give anyone what we might call objective reasons. They would still give anyone who reasonably thought they tracked real value subjective reasons (that is, evidence of objective reasons).

16 Unless, of course, it matters period that it matters to her (or to someone else). I discuss this case four paragraphs below.

17 For an important discussion of these matters in a more general context, see Nagel , The View from Nowhere.

18 For discussion of this distinction between “substantive” and merely “formal” aims in relation to belief and desire, see Velleman , “The Possibility of Practical Reason,” 714–15.

19 In “The Guise of the Good,” Velleman suggests that the “attainable” might provide a substantive constitutive aim for desire; however, that would provide no help in this context.

20 Since Moore can be read as giving special emphasis to the irreducible normativity of value (cf. his famous “open question” argument), it might seem odd that his views could underwrite the picture we are currently considering. The reason they might, as is now explained in the text, is that Moore's idea appears to be that value is normative, not for choice, desire, or action in the first instance, but for states of affairs. Moore G. E., Principia Ethica, ed. Baldwin Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 34.

21 Actually, this is insufficient, since assuming p also is a way of holding p true. What makes truth normative for belief is that belief is the kind of holding true that responds to truth (or evidence of it) in belief's distinctive way.

22 As Velleman puts it, “desire takes its propositional object as representing facienda — things that aren't the case but are to be brought about,” whereas “belief takes its prepositional object as representing facta — things that are the case and in virtue of which the proposition is true.” Velleman , “The Possibility of Practical Reason,” 707.

23 For this distinction, see the references in note 12 above.

24 Again, we will be ignoring the difference between desiring something and adopting or willing it as an end. In doing this, we will be simplifying even more than we have to this point, since the instrumental reasoning we will be considering only holds, strictly speaking, for the case of willing something as an end, and not for the general case of desire. This will not affect the argument of this section, however. If we can show that the validity of instrumental reasoning does not entail that the fact that one wills an end is a reason to take the means to achieving it, we will be able to conclude a fortiori that it also does not entail that the fact that one desires something is a reason to take steps to realize what one desires.

25 I discuss this point in Darwall , Impartial Reason, 1517, 4350. For more extensive discussion, see Broome John, “Normative Requirements,” Ratio 12, no. 4 (1999): 398419.

26 On this point, see Greenspan Patricia, “Conditional Oughts and Hypothetical Imperatives,” Journal of Philosophy 72, no. 10 (1975): 259–76; and Hare R. M., “Wanting: Some Pitfalls,” in Binkley Robert, Bronaugh Richard, and Marras Ausonio, eds., Agent, Action, and Reason (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1971).

27 I discuss this at greater length in Darwall , Impartial Reason, chap. 6.

28 This is Michael Smith's formulation, following Mark Platts; Smith Michael, The Moral Problem, 116.

29 Although this interpretation marks a gain in coherence, it may not mark a gain in clarity. Talk of the phenomenology of, say, color experience may be thought to have a clear sense that is lacking here. How, exactly, do things seem when it seems as if there is a standard to which the world must fit?

30 Note that the agent might simultaneously have a conflicting desire, say, that not p, from which perspective it will seem that the world should be such that not p. It is also possible for him to have the desire that p, but regard it as entirely discreditable. In this case, although the desire presents him with a kind of “appearance” that the world ought to be such that p is true, like a knowledgeable viewer of the Müller-Lyer optical illusion, he gives this appearance no weight at all in his overall judgment of how the world should be. (The Müller-Lyer illusion is two lines of equal length that appear to be of different lengths because one is flanked by inward-pointing arrows and the other is flanked by outward-pointing arrows.)

31 The italicized portion is important. The mere having of a second-order desire for the satisfaction of one's desire that p would not necessarily involve its being to one as if it ought to be that p because one desires that p.

32 Unless, of course, she desires that p occur uncaused.

33 Obviously, some means necessary for this state of affairs could not, as a logical matter, be taken by anyone other than her.

34 Such a view would be an instance of “substantive realism,” as Christine Korsgaard calls it. For her discussion, see Korsgaard Christine, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3537.

35 Sometimes we say things like “It should not happen that children go to bed hungry,” even when there is nothing we can do that could prevent it. However, such talk can be understood in terms of norms for attitudes, if not for actions (e.g., “It is lamentable [undesirable, shameful, etc.] that children go to bed hungry”).

36 Something like this is suggested by Scanlon's discussion of desire in the “directed-attention sense.” Scanlon , What We Owe to Each Other, 39.

37 This is, of course, the problem that Gilbert Harman raised in Harman Gilbert, The Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 310.

38 I think Scanlon does not sufficiently appreciate this difficulty in Scanlon , What We Owe to Each Other, 5572, and, in any case, that the considerations adduced in Section VI provide a better account of how considerations of “the reasonable” can provide reasons for acting.

39 It is consistent with this that in telling someone something, addressing him second-personally, the addresser may be able to give the addressee a reason for believing what the addresser says that that addressee would not have had if the addresser's saying it were considered only third-personally, as a mere assertion. A relation of trust between addresser and addressee might explain why telling something to someone could give the addressee reasons for belief that he would not have but for this second-personal address. Hinchman Edward S., “Telling as Inviting to Trust,” unpublished. Even if it is possible for one person to give another a distinctive “fiduciary” reason second-personally, however, this reason is ultimately parasitic on evidence in the usual way. If the addressee has no reason to think that the addresser's beliefs have some reliable relation to the truth, nothing the addresser could tell the addressee could give him reason to believe anything.

40 Fichte Johann Gottlieb, Foundations of Natural Right, ed. Neuhouser Frederick, trans. Baur Michael (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 2952.

41 Ibid., 32. Christine Korsgaard makes a similar point in Korsgaard , The Sources of Normativity, 139–43.

42 Compare here Adam Smith's contrast between the distinctively human capacity for independent, second-personal “exchange” as opposed to the attempts of animals to gain the goodwill of humans “by every servile and fawning attention.” Smith Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981), 1:26.

43 Although sympathy is not required, empathy, placing oneself in the other's shoes, is. Arguably, however, empathy is required for second-personal reciprocal recognition in the first place. For the differences between empathy and sympathy, see Darwall Stephen, “Empathy, Sympathy, Care,” Philosophical Studies 89, no. 2 (1998): 261–82.

44 Pufendorf Samuel, De Jure Naturae et Gentium Libri Octo (On the law of nature and nations), trans. Oldfather C. H. and Oldfather W. A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), I.i, sees. 2–6, pp. 47;, sec. 4, p. 89. I discuss this aspect of Pufendorf's views in Darwall Stephen, “Autonomy in Modern Natural Law,” unpublished.

45 This claim is implicit in Pufendorf's distinction between coercion and being under an obligation. Many things can “influence the will to turn to one side” or the other, but other evils “bear down the will as by some natural weight, and on their removal [the will] returns of itself to its former indifference.” Obligation, however, “affects the will morally,” so that it “is forced of itself to weigh its own actions, and to judge itself worthy of some censure, unless it conforms to a prescribed rule.” In effect, Pufendorf here invokes a notion of internal blame or censure, that is, accepting blame as justified (blaming oneself in authorizing the view of the other who blames one). Pufendorf , De Jure Naturae et Gentium Libri Octo,, sec. 5, p. 91.

46 There may seem to be many obvious counterexamples to this statement. Most vividly, what about orders to children or to slaves? It is important to distinguish, again, the pure claim from any attempt simply to cause a certain action or response. Claims are issued with the aim of getting a certain response in virtue of a recognition that the validity of the claim creates a reason so to respond. Thus, a pure order is issued to gain a response by virtue of a recognition that the validity of the order (one's authority to issue such an order) gives a reason. By their very nature, then, claims are issued to beings who are implicitly regarded as competent to recognize their valid, reason-giving character and to freely act on them. Of course, one can issue a claim even if one does not believe that the addressee is thus competent — the point is that one regards or treats him as though he were. Frequently, of course — for example, with children — this is done to insinuate proleptically the very recognition on the addressee's part that is necessary for the claim to “come off.”

Still, the suggestion that participants in any second-personal claim-making implicitly regard each other as (equally) free and rational may seem implausible. What, again, about masters and slaves? Here we should recall Hegel on “lordship and bondage.” Hegel claims that there is a contradiction in the master's second-personal address since he asserts a superiority that is belied by the recognition he seeks from the slave. Hegel G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Miller A. V. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 111–19. Any pure order presupposes a free recognition of the validity of the order. If, of course, the master can expect that the slave will freely respect the authority his order presupposes, then no contradiction need be involved. However, see the next paragraph.

47 Rawls John, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” Journal of Philosophy 77, no. 9 (1980): 543.

48 Korsgaard Christine, “The Normativity of Instrumental Reason,” in Cullity Garrett and Gaut Berys, eds., Ethics and Practical Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 246.

50 Although I agree with John Broome, and against Korsgaard, that, taken by itself, instrumental reasoning does not entail that the agent's desires or will provide reasons, as I argued in Section III. See Broome , “Normative Requirements,” 417–19.

51 Kant Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Kant Immanuel, Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor Mary J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 95 (Ak. p. 448).

52 See note 34 above.

53 “Autonomy of the will is the property of the will by which it is a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition).” Kant , Groundwork, 89 (Ak. p. 441).

54 “Consciousness of this fundamental law may be called a fact of reason.” Kant Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, in Kant , Practical Philosophy, 164 (Ak. p. 31).

* An earlier draft of this paper was presented at a conference on practical reason at the University of Rome (La Sapienza). I am indebted to members of the audience, especially to Jonathan Dancy, Carla Bagnoli, Allan Gibbard, and Tito Magri. I also owe much to the other contributors to this volume. Finally, I am indebted to Nishiten Shah for very helpful discussion.

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