Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Paradox of Motivation and MESR

The Paradox of Motivation isn't at all a paradox under meta-ethical subjective relativism. Under MESR, all of our discussion about ethics is a discussion about our motivations; there is no need to supply motivations between the evaluation of good and the performance of actions.

Under MESR, the Paradox of Motivation translates to, "I don't want to do X, but I will do X," which is still puzzling.

I'm always adding a proviso to specific statements about ethics; with the proviso, the problem with the PoM becomes a little more clear: "Some things considered, I don't want to do X, but all things considered, I will." With the proviso, it's clear that the statement is not at all puzzling.

It is a trope in the scientific study of psychology and cognition that the human mind is not a singular, perfectly synchronized entity; the human mind is made up of parts, parts that often compete. You have Freud's id, ego and superego; Berne's child, adult and parent; Wilson and Leary's circuits; Minsky's agents; and the layered evolutionary nature of the brain.

Ethical Philosophy tends to focus on — and thus privilege — only one of the parties to the conversation: that part of our minds concerned with logical, abstract thought. But such arbitrary privilege is prima facie unjustified; worse yet, logical abstract thought requires facts as a foundation (see The Scientific Method).

Furthermore, many of our ethical beliefs are not a result of logical, abstract thought, but are rather socially and culturally constructed: i.e. the product of some sort of social evolution (which, although employing very different specific mechanisms from biological evolution, still retains the fundamental mechanism of natural selection). It is at least a partial justification for some ethical beliefs that, regardless of their origins, we alter them at our peril: they have worked (in some sense) for scores or hundreds of years, and many of our other beliefs depend on those "traditionally justified" beliefs.

It seems obvious that our feelings of empathy and sympathy, of identifying the feelings of others with our own feelings, depends critically on our faculties of logical, abstract reasoning: to identify the "other" with the "self" requires a sense of self, which is a considerably abstract notion. It's likewise seemingly obvious that our concerns about our future self require abstract reasoning; the future is as much an abstract concept as the self.

But the entailment is only one way: a sense of self does not entail any sort of empathy; that we human beings are in truth empathic is a result of our specific evolutionary history, of specifically how our species itself evolved conscious minds. Abstract thought is necessary to conceive of the well-being of others and one's future self, but to desire the well being of others additionally requires the desire itself.

Under MESR, the dilemma of the Happiness rapist is obvious: He has a conflict between two desires: the desire not to hurt other people, and the desire to have sex with young boys. The plural-mind theory renders this simply a conflict rather than a paradox, and MESR obviates the need to discuss anything other than his desires.

There is an irritating tendency in ethical philosophy to label our desires, especially our "primitive" desires (those with the longest evolutionary history) as irrational by definition, because they are not strongly related (as is empathy) to our abstract reasoning. Desires, from our most primitive to our most abstract, are facts, and the facts are as intrinsically a part of rationality as is logical, abstract thought.


  1. I don't think you need that proviso to clarify the so-called paradox. The statement "I don't want to do X, but I will do X" is not at all puzzling as it stands because some level of desire has to be assumed for any action taken.

  2. Yeah, I think Kelly pretty much summed it up. I'm struggling to come up with a response, because I'm struggling to see what the problem is you're trying to demonstrate. You seem to think that motivation is a boolean on/off value, whereas it looks like a continuum to me. And apart from that, if you take into account multiple competing motivations ("I shouldn't eat a donut, but I will eat one"), I don't see the problem that your statement-template is supposed to present.

  3. I introduce the PoM as "puzzling" only to introduce motivational conflicts and rebut the simplistic notion of the unified mind.

    But motivation is a boolean at the end of the day: People actually do only a finite number of things at a time, and do not do an infinite number of things. As Yoda says, "Either do or do not; there is no try."

    Before the end of the day, motivation isn't even a continuum. It's a competition between internal mental processes that have very different, often mutually contradictory goals.

    The main point is that there is no separation between the evaluation of what is good, and the motivation to do things; evaluation and motivation are two ways of talking about the same mental process. You can't talk about some belief system — such as religion — that just motivates you; to motivate is to evaluate and vice versa.


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