Desire, Belief, and Paternalism


0706 |  Continuing a study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other

I think I’ve figured this out. The reason for Scanlon’s suggesting the possibility of akrasia seems to be because he equates akrasia with “irrationality,” and he considers irrationality to be a kind of “malfunctioning” of the rational capacities (p.40). He says,

“Akratic actions (and irrational thoughts) are cases in which a person’s rational capacities have malfunctioned, not cases in which these capacities are overmastered by something else, called “desire.”

Scanlon clearly doesn’t think of akrasia as appetites overpowering the intellect.

If this is all that akrasia is, then I can see how it is possible — since, even I admit that it’s possible for rational capacities to “malfunction.” But this basically amounts to the conclusion that nobody intends evil, since nobody can desire it or have an appetite for it. Whenever people commit evil, they are simply reasoning/rationalizing badly, and all the while they are aiming for something good. They just don’t know what is the best way to get there. But presumably, the aim is for the same thing: the good. This is an acceptable conclusion since it is as Socrates would say in Protagoras where he introduces the “art of measurement.”

But curiously… Socrates (in the same book) very explicitly denies akrasia because akrasia is for the intellect to be overpowered by the appetites. [Perhaps, all appetites actually come from the intellect?! If “appetites” are simply the general word for goals, intentions, desires…] In fact, Socrates’ meaning is very clear since the “art of measurement” is introduced as something that would save humanity from making errors in judgment. On the Socratic view, appetites and desires are not the enemy; they are not the things to suppress. Perhaps, nothing need be “suppressed” on the Socratic view, since what he ultimately advocates for is total harmony (meaning, no coercion). On the Socratic view, the appetites/desires simply need to be made healthy, so that the appetite can be beneficial for the person (the way that a healthy person would have an appetite for sweet things if her blood sugar levels were low).


Scanlon isn’t dull or insensitive. I’ve audited a course with him, and heard him speak a number of times in person. He’s actually quite clever and witty. And I think that he has a certain style of finding solutions, if my hunch about what he’s doing here is also correct.

I think that Scanlon acknowledges the appearance of akrasia, but rejects the original Socratic definition of akrasia in order to account for the appearances. In other words, Scanlon attempts to accomplish the same thing as Socrates while “saving the appearance.” This is why Scanlon’s solution for [what I now will call] the “appearance-of-akrasia” is actually the same as Socrates’ solution for the “nameless-not-akrasia“; what Scanlon saves is actually different from what Socrates rejects. And this also accounts for why Scanlon’s definition of akrasia must be different from Socrates’ definition of akrasia. And this is why Socrates rejects the possibility of akrasia, while Scanlon seems not to.

Hmm. I didn’t know Scanlon to be the sort to want to preserve appearances just so long as the result is the same. Then again, perhaps he is exactly the sort of thinker who would want to preserve appearances so long as the result is the same.

The only thing that worries me is that the definition of akrasia is changed in Scanlon. And the worry is that this may likely cause some sort of critical confusion later on. The lesson that I learned from Aristotle is that whenever some very fundamental deviation is made away from whatever the truth was originally — whether deliberately or not — the effect is not anything good in the long-run. There are always repercussions. This is why I am so keen for the truth.

There’s so much to understand, and one day I will understand everything.


1854 |  Continuing a study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other

This is a good question that Scanlon asks on page 46:

“…why does having an intention give rise to “reasons” when having a desire cannot”

I want to try answering this for myself, because I suspect that he will provide an answer for it himself. If I do this before I read on, then I will learn something not only about myself, but it also helps me to think actively — versus passively — about Scanlon’s answer because I have a “control” to compare it with.

First, definitions. A reason is an “account.” An intention is: “plans that aim for a specific end.”

And next, the argument: A plan requires coordinated effort — whether it is one’s own effort that must endure for a period of time, or whether it involves the collective effort of a team of people. An account helps to keep the effort organized and on track. A good account can ensure efficiency and overall effectiveness towards the attainment of the specific end. And so, for this reason, an intention requires an account and gives rise to “reasons.”

On the other hand, pure desires require only brute strength to carry it through to the end and, perhaps some courage if the desire involves dangers or pains.


2003 |  Continuing a study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other

This is good to note: according to footnote #32 in Chapter 1, per Michael Smith a desire is for an “ought” and a belief is an account of an “is.” This is what it means when Smith says that a desire is a state “with which the world must fit” while a belief “must fit the world.”

Noting this now might be quite handy later, if someone were to ask me, “Can you get an ought from an is?” To which I might readily reply: “No, you cannot. You can only get an is from an ought. That is, you can produce reasons to account for a desire. But reasons alone cannot produce desires. Thus, all desire is for the Good; and all reasons aim to persuade [or reveal to] the person of how some particular thing is Good.”


2144 |  Continuing a study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other

I have now made it to page 53.

Once, Scanlon had said to me indirectly (when I was auditing one of his last courses) that he and Korsgaard tend to hold opposite views. I remember that his indirect response to me had elicited a polite laugh from his students. I remember thinking about what was the difference between him and Korsgaard — that he was thinking of, anyways. (I think that one major difference between Scanlon and Korsgaard is that Korsgaard is willing to use “paternalism” as a solution, while Scanlon is not. I tend to be staunchly anti-paternalistic because of my personal history with the issue of abortion; especially if those who are to wield such “paternalistic” power over me are… not the same. And like most people who live in Plato’s world, I also do not wish to be ruled by those who are “worse” than I am. And it seems that the only way to make sure of that is to become a ruler myself — at least, of people like me. I have no desire to rule over people who are not like me, and neither do I wish to be ruled by people who are not like me.)

And, I also remember wondering what I looked like to Scanlon and his students, when viewed from their perspective. I remember feeling a bit more like an outsider in that moment, than I usually did. Well, it was just a feeling. (And I didn’t scream afterwards, since if it’s true that they can’t see me, then I probably shouldn’t expect them to be able to hear me either. What would be the point of screaming? I would just exert myself. Instead, I would do better to just apply myself more decidedly to becoming an “insider.” Well, also, I didn’t feel like screaming. I was fairly ashamed of myself for being so childish after the first time I did it. But, I’m still glad that I did it that one time.)

On that day, one of his grad-students had asked how to know what policies were the right ones. I decided to speak because I felt that I knew how to answer her and Scanlon’s explanations didn’t seem to have made their way to her. I wanted to make the suggestion that the right policies are the ones which, at best enables people to achieve the purpose [of the policy], and at least does not inhibit people from achieving the purpose. (I was probably not as clear and concise as I am here, since I was speaking “off the cuff” at that time.) To illustrate this point, I used an example that Korsgaard had once said in one of her essays; she had given the example of someone who ought to buy herself gardening gear if she had the intention of gardening. Sometimes, examples are very helpful.

Well, Scanlon says something about Kantian philosophy in his book — though, presumably, he is not a “Kantian.” He writes:

“These ‘principles’ are what Kant called maxims, that is to say, principles specifying the adequacy or inadequacy of various considerations as reasons for one or another judgement-sensitive attitude. It is a familiar Kantian theme that morality is concerned with maxims; that is, that moral reasons are reasons for and against taking certain other reasons as sufficient grounds for action… But for Kant, maxims are not just features of moral reasoning but central components of practical reasoning more generally, and my present point is that this seems intuitively to be correct. Morality aside, our practical thinking takes place within a framework of maxims and is concerned with adopting, interpreting, and modifying these principles as well as with deciding, within the framework they provide, whether we have sufficient reason for acting in particular ways.” (p. 53)

I can see how someone could start with Kant and end up with a “paternalism” as the most effective and efficient way to go. However, I think that Kantian philosophy also permits for the more voluntary “contractualism” that I think Scanlon advocates. And the point that I had wanted to make to answer that student’s question is the same, whether one wants to take a paternalistic stance on things or a contractualistic stance on things — since, even in a contractual situation, there are still policies that would enable the keeping of the contract, and also policies that would inhibit the keeping of the contract; there is no need to defer to other external so-called “moral” considerations other than whatever purpose that was agreed upon. As for Korsgaard’s example, well, the gardener had simply made a contract with her future selves when she decided that she would take up gardening as a serious project.

In any case, Scanlon admits that this part of Kantian philosophy seems to him to be “intuitively…correct.” So, I guess that means that I didn’t offend him by using an example that Korsgaard had come up with… But, I still wonder what the laughter was about.