One venerable objection against the principle that all motivation derives from desire points to the motive of duty, or practical necessity, as phenomenological evidence of its falsity. Supposedly, the experience of doing something because you have to (or, per Kant, the experience of being able to do something because you have to) is qualitatively distinct from the experience of doing something motivated by desire.

I think, however, that this phenomenological character of the motive of duty can be explained in a way fully compatible with the Motivation-by-Desire Principle. Here I’ll try to explain how. In part, what I’m looking for from this post (other than the usual insightful criticism from fellow Pea-Soupers) is a sense of whether this project is interesting enough to spend any time on.

Although I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else, I have some suspicions that my explanation is incredibly obvious. But often what seems obvious to me seems crazy to most other people! So please don’t hesitate to say simply, ‘Steve, it’s obvious’ (Or: ‘Philosopher Y said this in XXX [1905]’). Then I can stop wasting my time on this and move on to working on deservingly perverse theses.

The strategy involves several moves, as follows. None of these is particularly original.

(1) Desire-proper involves only intrinsic motivation towards an end. Desire for an end provides us with motivation towards the believed means to that end. If Bernard desires to drink gin, and believes that the bottle he’s holding contains gin, then his desire to drink gin can motivate him to drink out of the bottle. It doesn’t follow from the fact that he is motivated by desire to drink the stuff in the bottle that he desires to drink the stuff in the bottle, strictly speaking.

CONSEQUENCE: it is compatible with the Motivation-by-Desire Principle that an agent does something intentionally that he does not desire to do. But presumably Bernard wouldn’t claim that he had to drink the stuff in the bottle…

(2) Semantically, to say that you ‘have’ to do A is to say that doing A is instrumentally necessary for some end. Clearly sometimes it means this, at least: e.g. ‘I have to go to work now, if I am to keep my job’. This is ‘practical necessity’. It’s sometimes said that obligation has the feel of a demand from outside, while desire feels like a urge from inside. But the practical necessity here is external: it is (believed to be) an objective fact that the means is necessary for the end.

(3) Given (1), it is compatible with the Principle that an agent intentionally does something that he intrinsically desires not to do. If his desire for the end is stronger than his aversion to the means, and he believes that the means is necessary for the end, then his stronger desire for the end may/will motivate him to do something that he intrinsically desires not to do.

I think this explains the phenomenon of reluctance, which I see as the most significant component of the phenomenological quality of obligation, at least with regard to distinguishing it from motivation by desire. Although Kant thought that the motive of duty need not conflict with our desires, it was the conflict cases to which he appealed to show that the motive of duty was not a motive of desire. Being reluctant to A involves preferring not to A ‘if possible’. It manifests itself in only trying to A after first looking to see if there are any other alternatives. But this is fully compatible with the Principle. e.g. I’m starving on a mountain, I want to survive, but the only available ‘food’ is the bodies of my dead companions. If I am to survive, I have to eat them. But I’m strongly averse to eating them. If I do so, it will be with great reluctance, and only after satisfying myself that there is nothing else I could do to survive.

(4) This is arguably enough, but there’s one more move we can make. It might be said that sometimes we do things because we have to, even though it conflicts with our strongest desires. There is sometimes no joy or pleasure at all in doing what we have to do, but wouldn’t there be, if we were promoting something we desired most strongly?

Here we might distinguish between desire and aversion. Desire involves motivation towards a represented state of affairs (attraction), while aversion involves motivation away from a represented state of affairs (repulsion). Their phenomenological character is arguably also reversed; satisfaction of desire brings pleasure, while ‘satisfaction’ of aversion brings only relief. I suggest that characteristically, motives of duty are ultimately aversions rather than desires. If I see a child drowning in a river, and dive in to save her ‘because I have to’, I may be motivated by my aversion to the child’s drowning, and my belief that if I don’t dive into the river she will drown. This motive has the character of aversion+practical necessity, but it is still compatible with the Principle. (Assuming that no-one is going to object, ‘Ah, but aversions aren’t desires!’ If you like, it’s the Motivation-by-Desire-or-Aversion Principle).

Is there anything about the phenomenology of obligation left to explain?

(NB: The view of desire operating here is very different from Kant’s, which is certainly inadequate. So perhaps even Kant wouldn’t disagree with the basic idea?)

14 Replies to “Because I Have To

  1. Steve,
    couple of points. First, I don’t think anyone has suggested that *everything* an agent does must be something she desires. Rather, the idea is that *whenever* an agent, the agent must have a desire for *something* she can bring about. Without such a motivational state the action wouldn’t get going so to say. Of course, the actions can be described in many ways and the agent does not desire to do them under all descriptions – only under some.
    Second, I’m not sure the aversion could explain the action of saving the child. It does seem like a pro-attitude is needed towards the state of affairs where the child is saved. Also, in the desires/beliefs distinction that people make with direction of fit standard, all mental states are assumed to fall on one side or another. In this classification, aversions are desires.
    Third, I’ve always thought that the phenomenological argument is weak. Those who defend the Humean theory of motivating reasons don’t think of desires as phenomenological states but rather as dispositions or functional states. This is a rather technical understanding of ‘desires’ – a pro-attitude would be more neutral description. It wasn’t even suggested that such states should feel like something. Thus, if someone acts from duty but doesn’t feel like it, it still is supposed to be the case that one has a pro-attitude towards acting in the dutiful way.

  2. Hi Steve, Slightly tangentially, do you really want to place much weight on a sharp distinction between desires and aversions given the very thin way defenders of the principle understand ‘desire’?
    It’s perhaps most natural to take aversions as, in effect, desires that not…. Now people who want to speak of there being a special and distinctive class of negative properties get into trouble with the fact that there seem to be many cases where the same property is equally readily represented as e.g. the property of being even and the property of not being odd, or of being thin and not being fat. With desires and aversions much the same is surely true. Am I dieting and exercising because I have desire for a physique like De Niro’s at the beginning of Raging Bull or because I have an aversion to having (as alas I rather do these days) a physique like he has at the end. Or because, we no less naturally say, my preference is to be this way rather than this other way. Does workaholic Wilma work so hard because she has a desire for more money or an aversion for less? In many cases either answer seems plausibly equally correct – and in some they seem pretty well equivalent.
    That “satisfaction of desire brings pleasure, while ‘satisfaction’ of aversion brings only relief” seems at best true only for the most part. Surely some desires produce in their satisfaction no more than relief (obvious everyday example, with apologies for lowering the tone: the desire to pee); while relief at escaping some painful or grim situation can graduate to joy or delight etc. (Think of people who say, “Walking away from that dreadful job/relationship/whatever was just the best feeling ever” or the widespread euphoria that greeted the end of the last World War.)

  3. Steve;
    Very interesting post.
    You write in point #1 that “It doesn’t follow from the fact that he is motivated by desire to drink the stuff in the bottle that he desires to drink the stuff in the bottle, strictly speaking.”
    I do not understand this. Consider the following two arguments:
    1) A desires to drink gin
    2) A believes that the bottle he is holding contains gin.
    3) A desires the stuff in the bottle.
    4) Therefore A drinks from the bottle.
    1A) A believes that the stuff in the bottle is gin.
    2A) A desires to drink gin
    3A) A desires the stuff in the bottle
    4A) Therefore A drinks from the bottle.
    It seems to me that in both cases A desires to drink what is in the bottle so I do not understand what you mean by ‘strictly speaking.’ Obviously both arguemtns are the same, the premises have simply been rearranged, but I think that that is why I have a problem with ‘strictly speaking.’ Simply refocusing the starting point does not affect the outcome, it is based on the desire to have gin; the desire simply transfer to the material that is believed to be in the bottle. If this is the case then point #3 does not follow.
    Or, am I completely missing your point?

  4. Jussi – you yourself admit that you’ve never found the phenomenological argument compelling. But try to get yourself inside the head of those who have found it compelling – who are certainly plentiful enough. It’s not enough to make progress on a philosophical question to insist that the other side just ‘don’t get’ that desire is a functional concept, not a phenomenological one; you have to show them that your view still has the resources to capture the phenomena that they want to explain.
    I think Steve’s first thesis is really important to be clear about, and John’s comment already shows that it’s not obvious to everyone. Critics of Steve’s idea that all motivation is desire-based have certainly interpreted the view as holding that everything you do, you desire to do, and it’s a view that’s shared by most people who believe in instrumental desires.

  5. Mark,
    I agree about that. But, as I see the dialectic, the phenomenological point is supposed to be an argument against a certain specific view held by certain people (I’m not sure whether I hold it) – that all motivation derives from desires given what these people mean by ‘desires’. Now, if those people who held this view thought that desires are not necessarily felt but rather functional states, then the fact that sometimes we have motivation that is not felt as desiring seems to miss the target. If someone has held the view that all motivation derives from desires that have an experiental feel to them, then of course it would be a valid point. Has anyone claimed that? I then don’t see how objections that are missing the view that they are supposed to be objections to would advance the debate either.

  6. Go All Blacks!
    John and Jussi,
    Notice that what John is arguing is very close to what Jussi suggests no-one has ever held. Jussi, I think lots of philosophers have claimed that anytime someone does some action A, they desire to A. Even more philosophers have thought that the Motivation-by-Desire Principle is committed to this (an example that comes to mind is G. F. Schueler, in his 1995 book). I agree with you that they shouldn’t, and that this should be an obvious point. John, I think you’re identifying desiring with being motivated. Most philosophers think that you can desire an end without even being motivated towards what you believe to be the means. I’m with you on resisting that (I have a paper arguing for this). Almost all accept that you can desire an end without desiring the means. I think though that perhaps you are missing my point. My ‘strictly speaking’ was not directed at the order of the premises, but at the sense of desire at issue. My claim is that you can be motivated to the means by a desire for the end without DESIRING, strictly speaking, the means.
    Philosophers use ‘desire’ in all sorts of ways, many times to mean something so anemic that the Motivation-by-Desire Principle becomes trivial. But the phenomenological objection is aimed against the motivational hegemony of desire in a more substantial sense. I mean to defend the Principle for desire-proper.
    What do I think desires are? I don’t accept the phenomenological theory of desire, although I think my argument works fine on that view. As a contingent matter, I think human desires often have a certain phenomenological feel. My own view is that occurrent desiring consists in mental activity aimed at an end. But I don’t think my account here depends on this.
    I’m not sure whether the distinction between desires and aversions is even needed. But I do think we can make out a distinction between aversions and desires that not. The difference is in the object or state of affairs that the agent represents to herself. With an aversion to a child’s drowning, I represent to myself the drowning of the child, and this stimulates avoidance behaviour. With a desire that the child not drown, I represent to myself the not drowning of the child, which stimulates pursuit behaviour. Now you can see why I think this is more likely an aversion than a desire: negative desires might be philosophically kosher, but actual human psychology doesn’t handle the representation of negative states of affairs too well. So I think it’s a live question whether your work-outs are motivated by desire or aversion. What is it that you’re representing to yourself?
    I agree that my phenomenological claims regarding desire and aversion may only be true for the most part, although I think that what I’ve just said makes it possible to argue that your examples of pleasure from aversion are really due to desire.

  7. Steve,
    Desire-proper involves only intrinsic motivation towards an end. Desire for an end provides us with motivation towards the believed means to that end.
    So as I get the idea there will be motivations that are not desires for what they are motives for.
    If I’m right about that, I guess I have some questions. Where do intentions fit? Are they desires? On at least some arguments for the HTM, the claim that intentions are desires (because they play the right sort of motivating functional role) seems to be doing some of the work. So it looks like this way of defending the HTM will have to eschew those arguments.
    What makes motivation intrinsic? I go to the fridge because I want X, but absent minded as I am I no longer recall what I was looking for and in fact no longer want it. But I retain my intention/desire to open the fridge door and look inside. That goal is no longer a means to my end, since I forgot my end. But it was. If it’s not an intrinsic desire because its genesis was means/ends, then I think there may be worries about other goals people have as a result of momentum or cognitive dissonance. Say they started out wanting something because they wanted something else to which it was a means. But now having paid a lot for it they want it whether or not it serves those goals. Is it now intrinsic and hence a desire proper?
    I’m not saying these are weighty objections, just that these issues pop up for me as I think about the proposal.
    Apologies in advance for not replying to your reply very quickly. I’m traveling into the woods and off the grid early tomorrow.

  8. Mark,
    Regarding intentions, my view is that intending is a manifestation of desiring. Desiring includes those end-directed mental activities that are prior to settling on a course of action, whereas we intend an action once we have settled upon it. But I don’t think that my proposal in this post depends on my being right about this.
    Regarding motivational inertia: these are serious concerns. I see two possible lines of reply. One is that such behaviour is not really action-proper. The reply I prefer is that it is a contingent fact about our psychology that motivation sometimes causes new, proxy-desires. These are intrinsic but not resilient. They’re not backed up by any disposition to desire.
    If these are not satisfactory solutions, then the considerations you raise are serious problems for my position.

  9. Steve, You write:
    “With an aversion to a child’s drowning, I represent to myself the drowning of the child, and this stimulates avoidance behaviour. With a desire that the child not drown, I represent to myself the not drowning of the child, which stimulates pursuit behaviour. Now you can see why I think this is more likely an aversion than a desire: negative desires might be philosophically kosher, but actual human psychology doesn’t handle the representation of negative states of affairs too well.”
    and ask:
    “So I think it’s a live question whether your work-outs are motivated by desire or aversion. What is it that you’re representing to yourself?”
    The most natural answer is something like the BEFORE and AFTER pictures in the home gym adverts (I would be a good model for BEFORE). That’s *two* representations not one. Not desire for X but desire for X as opposed to Y, or, to put it another way, aversion to Y as opposed to X. Which don’t look very significantly distinct, the more so when Y is just not-X. (Economists’ favouring of more structured talk of preferences makes some sense in this context.)

  10. Jimmy,
    Thanks, it’s evident I have to do a whole lot more thinking about this. Your suggestion sounds a lot like Dancy’s account of motivation. Although I don’t have an argument for it, I have trouble imagining being motivated to work out with a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture in mind, and I still think there’s an intuitive difference between the desire and the aversion that I suggested. However, I concede that in order for an ‘after’ representation to play a motivational role for me, I have to be aware that there is a gap between it and reality.
    It may have been a mistake for me to tie my post so explicitly to the Motivation-by-Desire Principle, as it has been a distraction from my primary concern here. Even if that principle is false, there’s still a legitimate question whether doing something because one had to can be explained by appeal to desire(/aversion).

  11. “Your suggestion sounds a lot like Dancy’s account of motivation.”
    Well yes and no – I don’t agree with JD that there’s any anti-Humean mileage here. JD seems to think his two representation view as sketched in MR, chapter 1, section 5 and elsewhere, is some kind of alternative to the Humean view; while I adhere to the simple-minded Humean thought that no amount of cognitive representing to myself of the difference between me-without-a-fish and me-with-a-fish is going to motivate me unless I have some desire to which these representations speak – like a desire for a fish, say. But that I think is a fight between me and Jonathan, not me and you…

  12. Steve,
    This is a bit late in the discussion, but I hope that its helpful to your project.
    As I understand it, pointing to “the motive of duty” as an objection to the HTM is less than a knock-down argument, and more of a challenge to explain seemingly mundane reports by agents, not with the phenomenology of ‘have to’. The reports are things of the form, “Believe me, I had no desire to do it (help the homeless, dig through the garbage looking for a lost ring, tell the truth, etc.), but I just had to. It would have been wrong not to.” People certainly think and say that they’re doing things with no desire, and a primary case of these are cases in which they do it because they thought they ought to. So, can HTM explain these cases?
    One way HTM can explain them would be to say we’re mistaken in saying this. We certainly say we didn’t want to do x, but we really did. But these kinds of selective errors themselves in turn need an explanation. Perhaps social psychology has one…
    Another way would be to move to a conception of desire that is thinner than the ordinary concept. Perhaps the ordinary concept does contain some phenomenal aspect that is not required for the HTM.

  13. Robert,
    Thanks, I really do want to know what people think about this issue, so I appreciate your post.
    Two responses. First, my solution seems preferable (to me) to the two you sketch, because (if successful in its own terms) it doesn’t reject our mundane reports, or offer a substitute sense of desire. It defends common sense, if you like.
    Second, surely at least Kant was motivated more by phenomenological than linguistic evidence, although perhaps you’re right that this isn’t true of most others.

  14. Hi Steve,
    Perhaps your solution is preferable. But my own reading of Kant has him not motivated by the phenomenology, nor really by the linguistic evidence (that’s a contemporary spin on his views), but by what he terms “common rational knowledge”. It reflects, I think, a common moral outlook, at least at the time (but I think we still share much of it). That overall conception of morality, and, more broadly, rational human behavior, contains a range of ideas, one of which is that sometimes we do things we have no desire to do. We do them because we think we ‘must’. Sometimes, as you rightly point out, we must do x because it is necessary to achieve some goal you have. Although we normally think of this sort of motivation as a ‘transfer’ from a desire for an end to a desire to take the means, it does seem possible that you might find yourself with no desire to take the means, yet doing so anyway because you have to, in order to achieve some end (for me, dieting is this way). Other times, we must do x, even though it is not necessary to some end. These are the ‘duty’ cases, in which the necessity is, as it were, intrinsic. All of this is just (again, so far as I understand Kant) data from ‘ordinary rational knowledge’, stuff that Kant goes on to try to analyze, explain and defend. He does indeed refer to the feel of morality occasionally, but this is not the motivation for his thinking there’s non-desire-based motivations. He claims (and you can, of course, disagree) that this is just how we think about what we do.

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