Welcome to our NDPR review forum on Neil Sinhababu’s Humean Nature: How Desire Explains Action, Thought, and Feeling (OUP 2017), reviewed by Nomy Arpaly. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book, the review, or the discussion below!

From the book blurb:

Neil Sinhababu defends the Humean Theory of Motivation, according to which desire drives all human action and practical reasoning. Desire motivates us to pursue its object, makes thoughts of its object pleasant or unpleasant, focuses attention on its object, and is amplified by vivid representations of its object. These aspects of desire explain a vast range of psychological phenomena – why motivation often accompanies moral belief, how intentions shape our planning, how we exercise willpower, what it is to be a human self, how we express our emotions in action, why we procrastinate, and what we daydream about. Some philosophers regard such phenomena as troublesome for the Humean Theory, but the properties of desire help Humeans provide simpler and better explanations of these phenomena than their opponents can. The success of the Humean Theory in explaining a wide range of folk-psychological and experimental data, including those that its opponents cite in counterexamples, suggest that it is true. And the Humean Theory has revolutionary consequences for ethics, suggesting that moral judgments are beliefs about what feelings like guilt, admiration, and hope accurately represent in objective reality.

From the review:

Sometimes you still hear someone refer to the belief-desire view of human motivation and of acting for reasons as “The Standard Theory”. The days in which the theory was “standard” are long gone, and over the years it has been repeatedly maligned to the point that it is possible to defend it in such a contrarian tone as Neil Sinhababu’s. His book defends the aforementioned view and more generally the view that reason is but the slave of the passions. It is not a work in the history of philosophy and so it would probably make sense to refer to it as defending a neo-Humean position, though Sinhababu calls it simply “Humean”, which admittedly makes for better word play on “Human”. The book is worth reading for anyone who cares about the relevant debate, either as a neo-Humean or as a supporter of a more Reason-oriented view of people.

Though the book is not particularly thick — no footnotes or endnotes! — and written fairly pithily as well, it is packed with diverse arguments and hard to summarize. Sinhababu begins by outlining the issue and making sure we know that his endorsement of the Humean or neo-Humean view of motivation and of acting for reasons is unadorned and unqualified. He holds that intrinsic desires never change through reasoning. In this respect, he tolerates no “treachery”, of which he accuses Michael Smith, referring to Smith’s claiming to accommodate the Humean view of motivation (though not of rationality) and yet holding the view that intrinsic desires can change as a result of deliberation. Sinhababu also holds that belief/desire motivation is the only sort that exists. He is in this way more extreme than many philosophers, myself included, who qualify as neo-Humean due to their rejection of what Kantians call “non-empirical motives” but allow that in addition to desires, motivation can come through blind habit or “a-rational” emotional responses or intentions that are not, at heart, desires.

In Chapter 2 he discusses the properties of desire. In his view of the nature of desire Sinhababu draws heavily on the work of Timothy Schroeder, author of The Three Faces of Desire. While he does not fully accept Schroeder’s detailed view, he does borrow a key insight from him: that desire is most distinguished by its systematic effects on three things, namely motivation (though that need not “kick in” when you desire, say, that the square root of 2 be rational), the phenomena of pleasure and displeasure (pleasure involves things going the way we want them to, displeasure involves the reverse — though it gets more complicated), and patterns of attention (if you have a certain desire, you’ll tend to notice, disproportionally, things that are relevant to your desire). Sinhababu also points out that these effects can be amplified by vivid representation of a desire’s object and, of course, defends the view that intrinsic desires cannot be changed by believing or reasoning alone (and often cannot be changed by more laborious means either, as is the case with sexual orientation). I think Sinhababu would have benefitted from Schroeder’s more careful treatment of the all-things-being-equal-which-they-rarely-are character of the three effects of desire, despite the understandable need not to make the chapter too long. For one minor example, Sinhababu later writes that how much we enjoy daydreaming about something simply correlates with how much we are motivated to bring it about, which strikes me as too quick. Some people greatly enjoy daydreaming about things that they would never bring about, even for a good bribe and with Gyges’s ring.

The rest of the book — that is, about three quarters of it — involves attempts to refute various claims, made by various philosophers, of the form “desire-based theory can’t possibly explain why P” and critiques of specific arguments made to support these claims. The earlier chapters are ordered according to the specific features of desire that come into use in them — motivational aspect, hedonic aspect, attentional aspect, susceptibility to amplification by vivid representations, imperviousness to reasoning — and later discussions are unified by the overarching theme of showing what desire can do. After Chapter 2 is where the action is — and hence the difficulty in summarizing the book. In the opinion of this fellow neo-Humean, Sinhababu is successful in some of his attempts and fails in others; his take on human and Humean nature nuanced at times and a touch too simple at other times. Much to his credit, all of his discussions are engaging, and he writes clearly, without, for example, confusing innocent readers by introducing novel versions of the labels “internalism” and “externalism”.

Let me present a few samples. Sinhababu responds to a well-known case presented by Stephen Darwall — the case of Roberta, who grew up comfortably in a small community with little awareness of the extent of human suffering that exists elsewhere (52). At university, she sees a film about the plight of poor people exploited brutally by the companies they work for. Roberta is shocked and dismayed by the suffering of the workers and as a result becomes involved in organizing a boycott against the offending corporations — not the sort of action that one would have expected of her before she had seen the movie. Darwall holds that a desire-based theory of human motivation cannot account for conversions such as Roberta’s. Surely one cannot say that before seeing the film Roberta already had a desire to alleviate human suffering and that the film only showed her a way of doing so.

Sinhababu points out that the Humean thing to stipulate is not a desire to alleviate human suffering but rather a desire that people not suffer — presumably Roberta would be happy rather than upset if someone else stepped in and alleviated the suffering of the workers, thus robbing her of an opportunity to alleviate suffering. Could Roberta have had a desire that people not suffer (also known as an aversion to human suffering) before she saw the film? Certainly, says Sinhababu, and such a desire can explain the very unpleasant emotions she feels when she sees the film. Recall we typically experience displeasure when we realize something is the case which we desire not to be the case, and pleasure when things align with what we want. A sadistic counterpart of Roberta, with a desire that people suffer, would have enjoyed the film and reacted by excitedly exploring his chances of owning a sweat shop or becoming an anti-union goon. Roberta before the film is not motivated to act politically because she is ignorant of the extent of suffering in the world, and such knowledge of it as she does have is not in the forefront of her mind and is not accompanied by vivid representations of the sort that a good movie can provide. I find Sinhababu’s response to Darwall’s challenge convincing. Imagine a morally neutral case: a carefree person, Carrie, reads a powerful account of the dangers of failing to save for retirement, complete with vivid illustrations of the power of compound interest. Suddenly she is filled with anxiety and motivated to save money and invest it, to the surprise of her friends. It is quite unlikely that before receiving the relevant explanations, Carrie did not have a desire to do well financially in the future. Had she no desire for financial wellbeing she would not have felt such anxiety when made aware of the relevant economic facts, and so it is not altogether strange to hold that the same desire motivates her to start saving.

In Chapter 4, Sinhababu tackles the apparent motivational force that moral judgments seem to have — at least some of the time. Sinhababu holds that moral judgments and moral motivation are both ordinarily caused by what he calls “moral emotions”, and thus they ordinarily occur together. The view is complex, but the main gist appears to be this: moral emotions normally cause moral beliefs in a way that is analogous to the way color perceptions normally cause color beliefs. These are emotions like anger, guilt, pride, admiration, shame, contempt, and so on. If we admire a person’s character, for example, we normally believe she is admirable as a result (though our robust tendency to assume the world matches our emotions is defeasible, like our tendency to trust our color vision). This is how we come to take a person to be virtuous. The thought of stealing, for example, produces outrage, and so we regard stealing as outrageous, and therefore bad. Emotions are similar to color perceptions but are different from them in that every emotion has a desire component. The hedonic tone of morally relevant emotions — the “positive” nature of admiration and the “negative” nature of contempt — is dictated by desire. This, according to Sinhababu, explains why moral beliefs often come with moral motivation. The same desires that cause the thought of stealing to be unpleasant also motivate one to avoid it.

Sinhababu holds his view to be compatible with a wide variety of metaethical positions, including the view that properties like goodness and badness (or being admirable, being despicable, etc.) exist the way moral realists think they do and emotions are perceptions or direct experiences of these evaluative properties, a view represented by Christine Tappolet. However, recall that he takes the hedonic tone of morally relevant emotions to be set by the desires they contain, and desires, to a good neo-Humean, are not perceptions. They do not represent anything. We attribute goodness to actions when we feel pleasant emotions towards them and the pleasure inherent to these emotions occurs because of our intrinsic desires towards the actions (or their motives, outcomes, etc) — not because it reflects an evaluative property of the actions, such as goodness. If Alonso despises Teresa for the same character traits for which Spencer admires her, and the sole difference between them is that Spencer wants there to be people with Teresa’s character traits while Alonso wants no one to have these traits, how is one of them misperceiving her character? Perhaps Sinhababu’s view is not as ecumenical as he wants it to be.

In Chapter 6 Sinhababu responds to Michael Bratman’s views on intention, beginning with his negative view to the effect that intention cannot be explained in terms of beliefs and desires. On Sinhababu’s view, you intend that something occur if: you desire that it occur, your desire is combined with a belief that a situation will materialize in which you can make it more likely by performing a certain action, and, furthermore, it is true that if your desire combined with a belief that the situation in question is (already) the case, you would immediately perform the action (that is, be sufficiently motivated by the desire and belief combination to actually perform the action).

5 Replies to “NDPR Forum: Neil Sinhababu’s Humean Nature: How Desire Explains Action, Thought, and Feeling

  1. Thanks to Nomy for her thoughtful review of Humean Nature in NDPR, and to Sukaina and the rest of the PEA Soup folks for letting me discuss it here!

    The diagram that Sukaina kindly included (from page 64 of Humean Nature) displays my emotional perception model of moral judgment. My view is unusual in giving desire a major role in creating our moral beliefs. This raises issues concerning directions of fit which Nomy and other reviewers have raised, and which I’ll focus on here.

    A nonmoral case may help to introduce my model of moral judgment. Desire not only motivates action, but also causes pleasant or unpleasant feelings when we mentally represent its object in various ways. If you’re hungry, you’re likely to be pleased when someone unexpectedly offers you some strawberries. If they’re red and ripe, they might look delicious to you before you eat them – that’s how desire makes its object look. I think feelings can cause belief just like ordinary sensations do. They’re both experiences, after all. If the food looks delicious, that can cause you to believe that it’s delicious. When you eat the strawberries, you may come to believe that they’re as delicious as they look (or less delicious, or more delicious).

    For a moral case, I’ll repurpose the example from Darwall which Nomy discusses in her review. A student named Roberta sees a film displaying the suffering of exploited workers. Roberta is shocked and horrified by the suffering she sees. Desiring that others not suffer makes Roberta see suffering as bad, and contributes the displeasure that makes up part of her shock and horror. Just as color experience causes color belief, and the delicious appearance of strawberries can make you believe that they’re delicious, her horror at suffering makes her believe that it’s horrible. This is how desire causes feelings which cause moral beliefs. The same desire motivates actions in line with the moral beliefs as well.

    Treating desire as a common cause of moral belief and moral motivation allows Humeans to stick with a simple account of belief. Belief – even belief about normative reasons for action – doesn’t motivate action, and doesn’t generate new desires through reasoning. The correlation between belief and motivation can be explained by having desire cause both, rather than by granting additional causal powers to belief. All we have to do is generalize the obvious truth that sensation causes belief, let other experiences like feelings of horror cause belief, and we’re good to go! There are other ways to be morally motivated – for example, by de dicto moral desires. But as I didn’t think motivation from de dicto desires were sufficient to deal with all the cases, I wanted to offer a more automatic motivational pathway.

    Now I’ll turn to an issue regarding directions of fit that Nomy (and Karl Schafer) raise. They wonder whether this view requires giving desires a direction of fit that Humeans can’t. As Nomy puts the point above:

    “desires, to a good neo-Humean, are not perceptions. They do not represent anything. We attribute goodness to actions when we feel pleasant emotions towards them and the pleasure inherent to these emotions occurs because of our intrinsic desires towards the actions (or their motives, outcomes, etc) — not because it reflects an evaluative property of the actions, such as goodness. If Alonso despises Teresa for the same character traits for which Spencer admires her, and the sole difference between them is that Spencer wants there to be people with Teresa’s character traits while Alonso wants no one to have these traits, how is one of them misperceiving her character? Perhaps Sinhababu’s view is not as ecumenical as he wants it to be.”

    Here it’s important to separate the desire, which indeed doesn’t represent anything, from feelings that it causes. I treat the feelings as representational, while desire is nonrepresentational. This doesn’t involve one state with two incompatible directions of fit – it involves two distinct states with different directions of fit, one of which causes another. The causes of feelings don’t represent the world. But the feelings themselves do.

    Michael Smith suggests that the problem with one mental state having both directions of fit is that it would then go in and out of existence at the same time. If its purpose is to change the world, it would go out of existence when the world matches it. But if its purpose is to represent the world, it would stick around when the world matches it. This problem is avoided by having two different states, one of which causes the other. I don’t think the feelings desires cause are part of desires. They’re separate states of mind caused by desires, which in their intrinsic nature are more like sensations than like desires themselves.

    Is this okay? Can states with one direction of fit cause states with another? Well, Humeans have long thought that they do. Consider instrumental desire formation. A desire for an end combines with a belief that a particular means helps to achieve that end, creating a desire for the means. Was anyone alarmed by this unnatural coupling of states with different directions of fit, and the desire that resulted? Not that I know of – both the parent states and their offspring were happily admitted into the Humean family.

    Here it may be worthwhile to think about why Humeans were interested in directions of fit in the first place. As I see it, the point was to prevent reason from controlling the passions or determining action. If reason is able only to create and destroy states with a “representative quality”, as Hume puts it in section 2.3.3 of the Treatise, it can’t create or destroy passions (assuming the Humean view that they lack such a representative quality). It definitely can’t control action, since action doesn’t represent things. There are a variety of ways for anti-Humeans to respond, but here I’m less interested in the details of his arguments than his goal. I take it to be: showing that reason doesn’t motivate action, and doesn’t have the power to create or destroy the passions.

    Having desires cause feelings that cause beliefs isn’t anti-Humean, even if it has causal arrows that run across directions of fit. Maybe it’s actually paleo-Humean, because it really puts the passions in charge of reason! Here’s how I put it in the book, contrasting my view with Smith’s:

    “having desire (which doesn’t describe reality) cause feeling and belief (which do describe reality) is fully in the spirit of Hume’s view of reason as “the slave of the passions” (2.3.3). Passion, not reason, has causal and explanatory priority. Notably, Smith himself doesn’t think that mental states only generate others with the same direction of fit. He solves his trilemma by crossing the direction-of-fit border the other way, with beliefs about reasons controlling and changing our desires. This would turn the passions into slaves of reason and render the Humean Theory a conquered province of the Kingdom of Ends. I cross the border with the opposite mission: to give desires that don’t describe reality control over feelings and beliefs that do (68-69).”

    There are reasons why some philosophers will find such a view unappealing. In Ethics, Zoe Johnson King rightly notes that it provides an advantage to anti-realist moral theories. She writes that if desire is the cause of my moral feelings and then my beliefs, “it is just an incredibly fortuitous coincidence that my evaluative representations correspond perfectly to the evaluative facts.” If we’re just reading the moral truth off our feelings, as people usually do, she’s right! As a moral realist myself, this does concern me about the intuition-driven methodology of contemporary normative ethics, which allows these feelings to drive our moral theories.

    Fortunately, I allow other ways for moral beliefs to be created, as my diagram above suggests. Since moral beliefs are beliefs, they can be created in other ways beside sensation. Color beliefs, after all, can be created by testimony or by scientific instruments rather than visual perception of the object of belief. The normative ethical arguments I like best don’t operate on the intuition-driven method often used today. But I’ll have to tell you about those some other time.

  2. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for participating! I read much of the book a few months back with some others here in Essen, so if some of what I say seems off, that’s on me. I have a few questions in light of the comments here.

    (1) Just to be clear: Do you think being in a kind of experiential state is a necessary condition on possessing the moral concepts that are constitutive of moral beliefs and moral thoughts more generally? You suggest as much on page 78. If that’s right, I’m not sure I’m fully getting the bit from the final paragraph of your initial comment here, with respect to moral belief being “created” by testimony and scientific instruments. Suppose someone’s never had the relevant experiences, and hence lacks moral concepts, and hence lacks the moral thoughts that they constitute. But then I, experiencer of the relevant experiences, and hence possessor of the relevant moral concepts, tell them that lying is wrong and in so doing, the moral belief that lying is wrong is “created” in them. In what sense would this belief be moral on your view?

    (2) I’m a friend of experientialism. But I’m not sure how close of a friend I am. That’s in part because moral concepts like OUGHT and REASON don’t seem very experientialist friendly. On page 79, you provide experientialist analyses of some moral concepts, including GOOD, RIGHT, VIRTUE, BAD, WRONG, AND VICE. But you don’t provide analyses of OUGHT and REASON. I’m thinking that’s not a coincidence. What do you think the experientialist should say about concepts like these?

  3. Hi Nick! Good to see you here. I’m delighted that people at Essen read the book!

    (1) Yes, I do think that you have to know what guilt is like to master the concept of wrongness. That is indeed part of my experientialist conceptual analysis of moral terms, which I didn’t focus on here. When I was talking about creating moral belief above, I just meant how it could be immediately caused, not how we acquire the concepts in the first place.

    In the case you describe, the person you talk to could acquire a moral belief while being very far from mastery of the relevant concepts. This is basically a Burge-style social externalist story, where you’re the doctor and you’re talking to arthritis-man. It’s the same way a colorblind person who can’t see green properly can believe that things are green because other people say so. But in a linguistic community where nobody knew what the moral feelings were like, nobody would have any moral concepts.

    (2) I think OUGHT and REASON require some other sort of treatment. I don’t see anything in experience that represents reasons in general, or gives us a good story about how we acquire these concepts. I do think desire’s hedonic and attentional phenomenology combine to represent practical reasons (this is chapter 9). But is there a distinctive phenomenology of recognizing an epistemic reason? I don’t know what experience that would be.

  4. Thanks for the response, Neil. One more quick question. I just want to make sure I’ve understood your picture fully.

    You’re thinking that for e.g. WRONG to be shared around a community testimonially, it is necessary that at least one person in that community has experienced e.g. guilt. Is that right?

    I think I’m getting thrown off by a combination of not remembering my Burge as well as I should and you calling your view “experientialism.” That label, combined with some of the things you say, makes me think that, on your view, WRONG is more like (or even are a species of) a phenomenal concept such as PAIN than a theoretical concept like ARTHRITIS. And the more WRONG is like a phenomenal concept than a theoretical one the less plausible it is to me that anyone can acquire it via testimony without having experienced guilt themselves.

    (We enjoyed the book, by the way!)

  5. Yes, Nick, that’s what I’m thinking.

    Suppose the one person in the community who knows what guilt feels like says “Lying is wrong”, and everybody else hears this and tells everybody else. I think everyone passing it on believes and says something true. Of course, they they don’t fully understand what they’re saying. It’s like me when I say, “I am not a Higgs Boson.” I’m believing and saying something true (I actually checked with a philosopher of physics about this, and she told me I wasn’t a Higgs Boson). But that doesn’t mean I have much of an understanding of what a Higgs Boson is.

    If we define phenomenal concepts as concepts that require knowledge of what a phenomenal state is like for even the most minimal sort of concept-possession, the kind needed for true belief and true statements, I don’t know if there are any. But I do believe in phenomenal concepts of another sort — concepts that you need to know what a phenomenal state is like in order to fully understand. (My views on phenomenal concepts and externalism were shaped by grad school buddy Derek Ball, who’s now at St. Andrews — I hope this all would sound reasonable to him.)

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