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Hume Studies Volume XXV, Numbers 1 and 2, April/November 1999, pp. 101-122 Hume on the Generation of Motives: Why Beliefs Alone Never Motivate ELIZABETH S. RADCLIFFE Many philosophers subscribe to the Humean theory of motivation, the view that a belief must be conjoined with a desire in order to produce an action. Hume's thesis that reason alone does not motivate is taken as the ground for this theory: Reason produces beliefs only, and beliefs are mere representations of fact, which, without passions for the objects the beliefs concern, cannot move anyone at all. Discussions of the Humean theory of motivation usually begin with the motivating passions in place without asking about their genesis . This emphasis, I think, overlooks a good deal of what Hume's thesis concerning the motivational impotence of reason is about: It concerns the incapacity of reason to generate the motivating passions in the first place, and not just the ineffectiveness of beliefs, without passions, to produce action. The bone of contention between motivational rationalists and Hume is not merely about the need for a desire or a motivating passion, in addition to a belief, to generate action. In fact, the rationalist might well agree that actions are not caused by beliefs alone. Where Hume and at least some rationalists disagree is actually over whether beliefs can generate desires or motives. For example, can my belief that regular exercise is in my long-term interest by itself give me a desire or a motive to exercise regularly?1 If I am right here, then discussion of Hume's theory of motivation needs to be supplemented by an account of his theory of motive formation. In this paper, I will offer an interpretation of Hume's theory of motive formation and show how it provides crucial support for a famous claim in his argument Elizabeth S. Radcliffe is an associate professor at the Department of Philosophy, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA 95053-0310, USA. e-mail: eradcliffe@mailer.scu.edu 102 Elizabeth S. Radcliffe against the moral rationalists—namely, that "reason can never either prevent or produce any action or affection" (T 458).2 As it turns out, reason does play a necessary role in motive formation even for Hume, but the answer why it is not sufficient is a telling difference between a rationalist moral psychology and Hume's. Hume's argument for the claim that reason alone cannot prevent or produce actions or passions has been subject to constant discussion in the literature . Until recently, the standard reading was that this thesis is equivalent to the assertion that beliefs on their own cannot motivate actions; readers derived from this interpretation "the Humean theory of motivation," in which a belief-desire pair constitutes a motive to action.3 But this standard reading is currently being challenged; some say Hume is not a subscriber to the Humean theory of motivation and instead allows that some beliefs do motivate.4 For that reason, my paper falls into the following four parts. Section I settles two ambiguities concerning the scope of Hume's conclusion that reason is not productive of passions and actions. Section II then rejects the suggestion from some recent authors that beliefs alone may generate motivating passions even if reason does not. Section III offers an interpretation of Hume's positive account of motive formation and shows how agent dispositions are a central feature of that view, and Section IV answers objections this account may engender. A clarification is in order before I begin. In Hume's view, all motives are passions, but not all passions are motives (for example, benevolence is a motive, but pride is not [T 367]). So, in this discussion, I will be presenting an account of the production of "motivating passions," those passions which when later coupled with beliefs about the means to the objects of the passions become motives to action. In contemporary discussions, the Humean theory of motivation concerns the pairing of a "desire" with a means-end belief, but as far as Hume is concerned, any motivating passion will do (fear, hope, grief, etc.); desire is simply among the list of motivating passions (T 574...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 101-122
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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