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Probabilistic promotion revisited

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Promotion is the relation between an act and a desire that obtains when the act advances or serves the desire. Under what conditions does an act promote a desire? Probabilistic accounts of promotion, the most prominent accounts, analyze promotion in terms of an increase in the probability of the desire’s satisfaction. In this paper, we clarify the promotion relation and explain why probabilistic accounts are attractive. Then we identify two questions probabilistic accounts must answer: the Baseline Question and the Interpretation Question. We discuss and reject the three answers to the Baseline Question found in the literature, and explain the challenge future attempts at answering this question will face. Proponents of probabilistic accounts have not adequately addressed the Interpretation Question. We survey three answers to this question, finding each unsatisfactory. We conclude that no satisfactory probabilistic account has yet been offered, and that there are significant hurdles to providing one in the future.

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  1. So far as we are aware, the earliest probabilistic accounts are due to Finlay (2006) and Schroeder (2007). Similar probabilistic approaches to the development of principles that capture the transmission of reasons to perform an end to reasons to perform the means to it have also been discussed in the philosophical literature. For more on that issue, see the excellent discussion by Niko Kolodny (forthcoming). We attempt here to treat promotion as a relation that is in principle independent of its importance for developing a theory of instrumental reasons, though we recognize and discuss the relationship between promotion and instrumental reasons below.

  2. See Snedegar (2014) for discussion.

  3. See Schroeder (2007).

  4. The name ‘moral rationalism’ is potentially misleading, as several different kinds of theses share it. The kind of moral rationalism with which we are concerned is not one that is rationalist in the epistemic sense, and neither is it one that necessarily links morality with rationality. Rather, the principle concerns a link between the existence of moral obligations and the existence of normative reasons. We take the principle to be of the sort discussed by Shafer-Landau (2003: chapter 8), and Enoch (2011: chapter 4), for example. See also discussion from Eden Lin (2015) regarding the relationship between Moral Rationalism and Schroeder’s account of practical reasons. For a discussion of a rationalist thesis of the same kind as that mentioned in the main text here, but of greater strength, see Portmore (2011).

  5. Schroeder (2007).

  6. Olson (2011: 77–78).

  7. We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting to us the import of the promotion relation for action theory.

  8. We assume that this role is filled by propositions, but do so with the understanding that states of affairs may best play the determined role instead.

  9. As we understand it, satisfaction relates to desires, and promotion relates to objects of desires, but we will sometimes speak loosely, in terms of promotion of desires. We intend this to be shorthand for promotion of the object of those desires.

  10. In focusing on PP, we are focusing on “pure” probabilistic accounts of promotion, rather than “impure” probabilistic accounts, like the one Sharadin (2015) defends. An impure account appeals to some factor other than probability raising as a condition for promotion. We will not explicitly address impure accounts, except to make three notes. First, the probabilistic component of such accounts may be susceptible to the objection we level against Coates’ view in Sect. 4.3. Second, without an answer to the Interpretation Question (introduced at the beginning of Sect. 4), like all other probabilistic accounts, impure accounts will be empty. Lastly, we offer considerations that count against endorsing Sharadin’s account in DiPaolo and Behrends (2015).

  11. It does so only in cases in which the probability of the agent’s desire is less than 1 and can be increased to 1. We flag this limitation here; we discuss it further in Sect. 5.

  12. Sharadin (2015) represents the right-hand side of probabilistic accounts as inequalities between a conditional probability (the probability of the relevant desire’s being satisfied conditional on the relevant action’s occurring) and another probability. For instance, Finlay’s view (PP1 below), is stated like this: A-ing promotes D iff P(D|A) > P(D| ~ A). But promotion is a determination relation, and inequalities don’t encode determination. The “increasing probability” relation, as we’re understanding it, encodes determination. That’s why we opt for our way of stating probabilistic accounts.

  13. As far as we know, of the proponents of probabilistic accounts, only Finlay (2014) has addressed the Interpretation Question.

  14. Hitchcock (2004: 405) notes that his contrastive probabilistic account of causation enjoys this sort of advantage, but the point carries over to promotion.

  15. Thanks to an anonymous referee for urging us to say more than we previously did about contrastive accounts.

  16. Behrends and DiPaolo (2011).

  17. Finlay’s (2006) suggests this view.

  18. Behrends and DiPaolo (2011: 2). Buttons 2 and Do Nothing below also come from this paper.

  19. This is suggested by Schroeder’s (2007).

  20. An anonymous reviewer has suggested that this intuition may be more strongly elicited if we stipulate that Austin is aware of Black’s arrangements. We invite you to adopt this stipulation if you find that it indeed makes the case more compelling.

  21. Evers (2009) also emphasizes that doing nothing can sometimes promote a desire.

  22. Behrends and DiPaolo (2011: 5).

  23. See Coates (2014: 4). For different reasons, Sharadin (2015) reaches a related conclusion. He agrees that probability raising is unnecessary for promotion, but thinks it is nonetheless still sufficient. See DiPaolo and Behrends (2015) for criticism of Sharadin’s arguments.

  24. Coates (2014: 4).

  25. We’re inspired by Sartorio (2011) here.

  26. See Sartorio (2011) for a careful discussion concerning what makes for an actual-sequence view, and Fischer (2006: 1–37) for a well-known defense of such a view.

  27. Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting that we focus directly on causation.

  28. This example is adapted from Sartorio (2013); the lesson we draw here is inspired by lessons drawn in Sartorio (2011).

  29. We say more about Coates’ appeal to “intrinsic” probabilities below.

  30. Coates (2014: 5). Coates presents the case in the first person, but, to avoid confusion about whether we are referring to the author or to the subject in the example, we have chosen to refer to the subject as ‘Harold.’

  31. Coates (2014: 6).

  32. Coates doesn’t explicitly address Do Nothing, but it should be clear how PP3 applies to that case.

  33. In discussing lottery cases to assess answers to the Baseline Question, we will bracket concerns about answering the Interpretation Question (which we discuss in Sect. 5). When using the lottery framework to test answers to the Baseline Question, what we are really asking is this: assuming that there is a good answer to the Interpretation Question, such that the relevant probabilities are as stipulated in the lottery cases, does the candidate answer to the Baseline Question get the right result? Of course, if there is no good answer to the Interpretation Question, then probabilistic accounts face a serious problem. But here the point is that there are independent problems with answering the Baseline Question.

  34. Why the caution about whether promotion occurs in this case? We sometimes wonder whether promotion can occur only if the relevant desire is eventually satisfied. We will not explore this thought further here. Note, though, that it does not conflict, as one might worry it does, with Promotion Does not Entail Satisfaction.

  35. Coates (2014: 6–7).

  36. Hajek (2011).

  37. Sharadin (2015) argues that probability-raising suffices for promotion. Depending on how he understands the probabilities, this may also constitute an argument against his view.

  38. As with Do Nothing, if you find the case more compelling by imagining that Olivia is aware of Black’s involvement, we invite you to do so.

  39. Incompatibilists, like Popper (1982), Lewis (1986: 117–121), and Schaffer (2007), argue that no deterministic worlds are chancy. Compatibilists, like Loewer (2001, 2004) and Hoefer (2007), argue for the negation of that claim.

  40. PP, and the positions that promotion actually occurs and that the relevant probability is objective chance, together entail that some actions increase the objective chances of some desires. The position that determinism is actually true, together with incompatibilism about chance, entail that objective chances of propositions in the actual world always have a chance of either 0 or 1, which further entails that there can be no actions that increase the objective chances of desires.

  41. Loewer (2004: 1116).

  42. Schroeder (2007: 15), for example, is explicit that this is the kind of reason with which he is concerned.

  43. Finlay (2014: 42) also suggests that objective probabilities, rather than subjective, are relevant to promotion. As we noted in fn. 14, Finlay is the only author of whom we are aware who directly addresses the Interpretation Question.

  44. If you agree that there is promotion in this case and you agree that there is no (relevant) probability raising, then this is another reason to think that probability raising is unnecessary for promotion.

  45. See Sober (2008: 27–28) for a brief, non-technical discussion of problems associated with the POI. For a recent defense of the POI, see White (2010). For critical discussion of White’s arguments, see Meacham (2014). In fn. 41, we observe that Finlay suggests that promotion should be understood in terms of objective chances. In analyzing the good for relation, Finlay (2014: 44) relies on the POI. It seems to us that such an analysis will suffer from the problems we discuss above.

  46. Arguably, there are only three kinds of probability to choose from in answering the Interpretation Question (objective chance, subjective credence, and evidential probability), and Otto, Sarah, and Ida each adopts one of these. But they also adopt auxiliary assumptions—for instance, that chance is incompatible with determinism—which are plausible, given their choice of probability, but not mandatory. Different packages of (1) a kind of probability and (2) auxiliary assumptions will constitute different approaches to answering the Interpretation Question. So, proponents of PP need to either defend the results we consider problematic or defend different packages.


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We are very grateful to John Basl, Eden Lin, Chris Meacham, Gina Schouten, and an anonymous reviewer for this journal for reading an earlier draft of this paper, and for providing extremely helpful comments. DiPaolo’s work on this paper was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. DiPaolo would also like to thank Saint Louis University and its Department of Philosophy for their funding and support.

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Correspondence to Joshua DiPaolo.

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We have adopted the convention of alternating the order in which our names appear on co-written papers. This paper is the product of full and equal contribution between its authors.

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Behrends, J., DiPaolo, J. Probabilistic promotion revisited. Philos Stud 173, 1735–1754 (2016).

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