Sunday, May 06, 2007

Kicking, Screaming Gucci Little Piggy, Or, A 'Did Reading All That Kant Pay Off Then' Bleg

So, this is an example I am using in the most recently written chapter, and I was wondering if people think it works. The context is an attempt to show that agency itself is subject to the normative constraint that it should respect agency.

Imagine a particularly ambitious person, who wants to be the best in the field they work in; indeed, this seems to be the most important, if not the only, reason they acknowledge for working in that field – for them, the challenge of succeeding in becoming the best in their field is about all that motivates them to succeed in that field. Having the goal of being the best in a particular field for the sake of being the best in the field you happen to have ended up in is rather strange and perhaps inherently unstable, though. This is because if it is not met, then there is no recompense in having engaged in an activity understood to be worthwhile, and if it is met, all that has been achieved is success, rather than success at something: the reasons for being successful in that field have not been responded to, but reasons for success in the abstract[1].

Even if they are interested in the challenge that achieving the success provides, it is not clear that they are doing anything particularly worthwhile: having the project of building a 100 metre high tower of matchsticks or counting all the blades of grass on a lawn would be a challenge in the sense that it would be difficult, but not really something we would regard as something that someone should spend as much time on as they typically would on their career. That something is challenging, then, does not by itself provide us with much reason to do it, and certainly not, on its own, enough reason to occupy as much of our time and energy as a career typically does. Consider as a contrast having the goal of succeeding in a particular profession by becoming the best in it, where that goal takes it to be independently important to do well in the profession concerned, with becoming the best a means to that end. We could understand a scientist who tried to solve whatever problem their field defined as the most important problem in it as having this goal, as long as we also understood that their interest in this problem was driven by a response to the problem itself, rather than only the success that would attach itself to whoever solved it. In the case under consideration here, the relationship is reversed: apparent responses to the reasons, if any, that the profession gives to do particular things are in fact responses to the reasons, if any, to be successful in the abstract.

I want to claim that something about taking that kind of ambition to provide one with reasons to aim at success in particular field misunderstands what reasons are because it misunderstands how reasons relate to agency. In particular, it seems to deny both one’s own agency and that of others, and since agency is normatively significant, that is to misunderstand what reasons one has: one’s capacity to respond to reasons itself provides reasons[2]. To deal with the denial of their own agency first, presumably, we take doctors, for example, to have reasons at least related to peoples’ illnesses to attempt to cure them, even if that relationship is not always particularly direct, and so the peculiarly ambitious person is not responding to those sorts of reasons, reasons related to one’s profession. This is because all that motivates them in their career is the bare thought of success: if they could be the best surgeon whilst being an absolutely bad surgeon, for example, then that would satisfy them. Not responding to the reasons one has for doing something is to deny one’s agency, which simply is the capacity to respond to reasons and guide one’s actions by reference to them. If I persistently refuse to respond to reasons I have in some sphere of my life, then I refuse to be an agent in that sphere of my life: I effectively deny that my capacity to respond to reasons has any normative weight for me there. Since one’s career is usually an important area of one’s life, refusing to see the reasons – which might, as a matter of fact, be rather obliquely related to the career itself: someone could have reasons to do a highly repetitious and unstimulating job related to the opportunities it provided them in other areas of their life – for having it, if refusing to see reasons is to deny agency, is to deny agency in an important area of one’s life.

We might put this another way, which exposes how this kind of ambition denies the agency of others as well. This kind of ambition is both self-obsessed and self-effacing: as a goal, it is dependent on others not being better, for whatever reason, in the field in question, and, absent the unlikely possibility that the person with the ambition really is the best at whatever it they are doing, so dependent on the failure of others to respond adequately to the reasons they have for being involved in whatever the field in question is. That is self-effacing because it is a goal more or less wholly dependent on what others happen to do[3], and self-obsessed because its fulfilment requires others to fail to respond to the reasons they have. That self-obsession denies, I take it, that others have reason to respond fully to the reasons they have, and so in that sense denies their agency, in that it takes reasons not to have normative weight for them[4]. The self-effacement, conversely, denies one’s own agency since it removes the possibility of one succeeding in one’s own goals by one’s own efforts: that one could respond to reasons is irrelevant insofar as this goal is concerned, since what one takes to have normative weight has no intrinsic relationship to how responsive one is to the relevant reasons.

[1] This last claim is in this context perhaps strictly question-begging, since it assumes that there are no reasons for success in the abstract, which is roughly what the argument is supposed to show. Those who do not regard it as question-begging should take the rest of the discussion of this case as an explanation of its truth, whereas those who do find it objectionable should take the rest of the discussion as an argument for its truth.

[2] I do not mean agency in the sense of instrumental rationality here, but rather agency in the sense of being ‘reason-assessing, self-governing creatures’. The problem with the ambitious person is that they do not respond to reasons; since instrumental rationality has nothing to say about what goals some adopts, but only the means they take to them, a lack of responsiveness to reasons – which give ones goals, rather than means to goals – could hardly be a difficulty for instrumental rationality.

[3] There are pursuits and even careers in which one’s success is significantly dependent on the success of others without that being self-effacing – any directly competitive activity, for example, and most obviously professional sports. The reason that these activities are not necessarily self-effacing is that there are plenty of reasons for engaging in them in the first place: one’s own enjoyment, as well as that of others, and the striving for a kind of perfection, to mention perhaps the most obvious. Trying to respond to those reasons is something that one can succeed in without having success in the activity that one is trying to respond to them by doing. The importance of these kinds of considerations can be seen if we consider whether many athletes would want to win an Olympic gold in a final in which every other competitor pulled up injured, or, more starkly, in which they had lamed every other competitor. This is not to say that some of those involved in directly competitive activities do not have the kind of ambition discussed here, merely that it is not necessary to have such an attitude in order to see the point in participating in such activities, and aiming to do well, relative to others, in them.

[4] Obviously, there can be varying degrees of this denial: someone who actively prevents others from responding to their reasons denies their agency to a greater degree than someone who is simply indifferent to their responsiveness. Consider a parallel case. If I steal your property, I do not respect your right to it. If I fail in my duty to provide for the protection of your right to that property, by paying my taxes, for example I do not respect your right to it either, although the degree to which I do not respect it differs between the two cases.


Ben said...

Ok, so you skip moral philosophy seminars about reasons, and then write this...

I agree there's something odd about this case, and I think you should make more of the fact that one's desire to be the best X doesn't require one to be a good X (and, indeed, is equally fulfilled by your improvement or others' worsening)

I'm not so sure about the more fundamental point that this is somehow a denial of agency. For a start, I'm not clear whether the failure is to recognize reasons or respond to reasons that one has recognized.

Rob Jubb said...

That's a potential useful, if also irritating, distinction, I think. If we assume a degree of reflection, then the normative significance of the distinction probably disappears - if you're capable of asking why you're doing this, then if it's important to have the right reasons, it's important whether you lack them because you didn't bother to ask or you ignored the answers. Maybe that assumption is unjustified though.

In the absence of the assumption, I think the point about agency stands, you just have to make it slightly differently. Where there is a non-culpable failure to recognize reasons, rather than agency being denied, what you want to say is that it fails, the difference being that denial involves (ironically) agency - someone has to do the denying - whereas when no reasons where recognized, it looks like a necessary precondition of agency is absent. In the 'no response to recognized reasons' case, the denial seems more straightforward.

In the chapter, I pinch a Scanlon example about friendship which probably makes what I am getting at clearer, but I want this to at least be capable of standing on its own.