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Slaves of the Passions (review)

From: Hume Studies
Volume 36, Number 2, 2010
pp. 225-228 | 10.1353/hms.2010.0012

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In Slaves of the Passions, Mark Schroeder provides a systematic, rigorously argued defense of a Humean theory of reasons for action, taking pains to respond to influential objections to the view. While inspired by Hume, Schroeder makes it clear that he aims to develop a Humean theory, not necessarily one that Hume himself embraced, and for this reason little is said about Hume in the book. One respect in which Schroeder takes himself to be departing from Hume is in developing a normative account. On his reading, Hume held that only beliefs could stand in the reason relation (187, n11), whereas Schroeder, like many contemporary Humeans, holds that actions can as well. He sets out to develop a theory of this relation. Of special interest, I think, is the extent to which Schroeder is willing to reject what are often regarded as central commitments of a Humean position, as I highlight below. His discussion provides an extremely helpful framework for thinking through the Humean view. It should be of great interest to participants in the reasons debate and to anyone who is dissatisfied with Hume’s denial that actions can be reasonable or unreasonable and who wonders how his insights might be developed.

A familiar argument for the Humean theory starts with the claim that reasons must be able to motivate, adds that desire is necessary for motivation, and concludes that having a reason requires having a desire. Schroeder instead takes the primary rationale for the theory to be that it explains an agent’s reasons, and differences among agents’ reasons, more plausibly than its rivals. In many cases, he claims, we should explain an agent’s reasons by appealing to elements of his psychology (e.g., Ronnie’s reason to go to the party is explained by the facts that he likes to dance and that there will be dancing there). The “Humean thought” is that if there is to be a unified explanation of why people have the reasons they do, and if reasons are sometimes explained by appealing to psychological features of agents, then they must always be explained in this way (2).

The Humean theory as such does not identify which psychological feature is involved (e.g., desire, pleasure, valuing) or explain exactly how it gives rise to a reason, however. This is important, Schroeder argues, for influential recent criticisms of the theory rest upon assumptions about how the Humean explanation must work—assumptions that a Humean can reject (5). It’s often supposed, for example, that the psychological state involved is desire, that this desire must figure in the content of a reason, and that the weight of a reason is a function of the strength of desire together with how well an action promotes it. These assumptions lead to familiar objections to the Humean view, including the following: (1) it makes practical reasoning too self-regarding, focused on the agent’s desires; (2) it gives the wrong answer to the question of why considerations are reason-giving, i.e., because they promote the agent’s desires; (3) it neglects to defend its foundational claim that desires figure in the explanation of every reason; (4) it generates too many reasons, counting things as reason-giving that clearly are not; and (5) it generates too few reasons, failing, in particular, to yield agent-neutral moral reasons.

A substantial part of Schroeder’s defense of the Humean theory (chapters 2–7) consists in responding to these objections. The explanatory framework of his preferred version, which he calls “Hypotheticalism,” emerges through these arguments. In chapter 2, he argues that in a Humean view desire need only appear in the background conditions of a reason and not in its content, allowing the theory to escape objections (1) and (2). In chapters 3 and 4, he argues that the Humean theory can defend its foundational claim by offering the right kind of reductive analysis of what a reason is. In chapters 5–7, he argues that in a Humean view the weight of a reason needn’t be a function of the strength of desire, and uses this to respond to objections (4) and (5). The remaining chapters fill in...



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