Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

From Desire to Subjective Value: What Neuroeconomics Reveals about Naturalism

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

From Desire to Subjective Value: What Neuroeconomics Reveals about Naturalism

Article excerpt

[I]t is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking (Anscombe 1958, 1).

A great deal of the recent work in cognitive science has, tacitly or explicitly, assumed very much the picture of mental organization that folk psychology proposes. There are other straws in the wind, however. There are findings and theories suggesting that something is seriously wrong with the simple belief-desire structure implicit in common sense wisdom (Stich 1983, 230).

The last decade or so has seen a growing number of philosophers express concern over the proliferation of dubious empirical claims and assumptions in ethics. Stephen Darwall, Alan Gibbard, and Peter Railton, in their overview of the last century of work in ethics, observe that, "too many moral philosophers [...] have been content to invent their psychology or anthropology from scratch" (Darwall, et al. 1992, 188189). John Doris and Stephen Stich have echoed that concern, arguing further that philosophy's empirical complacency has discouraged scientists from "undertaking philosophically informed research on ethical issues" (2007, 115).

For those of us who share these concerns about philosophy's empirical commitments in an age of rapid scientific progress, it might seem encouraging that there is now at least one problem in metaethics and philosophical moral psychology that is receiving extensive empirical treatment from philosophers. That is the problem of moral motivation (MM), i.e., the problem of explaining, perhaps conceptually, the nature of the relationship between an agent's moral judgments (or beliefs) and her behavior.

The conceptual difficulty that lies at the heart of the problem of MM is straightforward. Suppose that I come to believe that the morally right thing to do is to tithe my salary in support of famine relief. Does my believing this mean that I will necessarily be motivated to do it? On the one hand, it seems so because if I should insist that giving is the right thing to do without actually being so motivated, the best explanation for my lack of motivation might be that I do not genuinely believe what I claim to. On the other hand, it seems plausible that I might genuinely believe that I should tithe my salary and yet remain unmotivated precisely because I do not actually want to. Which is the better account of the relationship between my moral judgment and my motivation? In very plain terms, this is the problem of MM.

In its more rigorous academic form, the problem of MM encompasses at least two distinct though related philosophical disputes concerned with whether and how moral judgments motivate moral agents. The first dispute is about whether moral judgments motivate. Motivational internalists argue that moral beliefs motivate necessarily while externalists deny this. The second dispute is about how such judgments motivate. Proponents of the so-called Humean theory of motivation (or Humeanism) argue that moral beliefs are insufficient for motivating agents since motivation requires in addition to a belief the presence of a conative state such as a desire. Anti-Humeans reject the Humean theory on the grounds that moral beliefs are themselves sufficient for motivation. Some anti-Humeans endorse internalism, or one of a few related ideas such as that moral beliefs are somehow simultaneously desire-like ("besires")1 or that moral beliefs co-occur with or otherwise trigger the relevant desires.

The connection between this philosophical dispute and empirical science is straightforward. Scientists too are interested in the relationship between value judgment, decision-making, and motivation. It might seem promising, then, that a growing number of philosophers- naturalists, though the label is perhaps not always self-applied- are using data from psychology, psychiatry, cognitive science, and neuroscience to help resolve these longstanding philosophical disputes about MM. …

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