In recent work on moral intuition, Dancy (2014) introduces the notion of a practical seeming. A practical seeming is a non-sensory presentation of a state of affairs as favoring a certain conduct. Dancy develops a fairly detailed conception of practical seemings, which extensively draws on Bengson’s (2015) pioneering account of presentation. As he goes on to argue, the emotions are a familiar aspect of our psychology that answers to this conception.
To get clearer on Dancy’s proposal and make progress towards a more substantive view of presentations of normative reasons, it is helpful to first consider Bengson’s view of presentation. Bengson offers a profile of general features of presentational states which is supposed to delineate them from nearby phenomena such as beliefs, judgments and imaginings. As he proposes, presentations are baseless, gradable, fundamentally non-voluntary, compelling and apt to rationalize assent from the subject’s perspective.Footnote 6 Let me go through these features in turn.
Presentations are baseless in that we do not form them. For example, a visual experience is a mental state that one simply has or fails to have. In contrast to a perceptual judgment, which is formed on the basis of a perceptual experience, the experience itself is a matter simply of being saddled with a particular impression. For presentations to be gradable is for them to vary along dimensions such as clarity or vividness. Presentations are fundamentally non-voluntary in that they are passive or receptive, i.e. ways of being acted on which are not within our conscious control. (I say more about the idea of non-voluntariness below.) And they are compelling in that we are typically disposed or inclined to assent to the respective appearance. Normally, this will also seem, at least on reflection, an appropriate thing to do. That is, when there are no countervailing reasons, it will seem rational to form a corresponding belief. In these latter two respects, presentations differ from imaginings. In imagining that there is a mug on the table, unlike in the case of visually perceiving this, one is neither inclined nor finds it appropriate to believe accordingly. Plausibly, this is because only when this state of affairs is visually presented one apprehends it as obtaining.Footnote 7
As Dancy characterizes practical seemings, they conform to this profile, though with one modification. In this particular case, assent can be practical. Practical seemings are similar to desires in having motivational import. They compel their subject to act as the presented reason prescribes. We practically assent to this presentation by responding accordingly.
There is much to be said in favor both of Bengson’s account of presentation as well as its adaption by Dancy for the purpose of clarifying the idea of a presentational access to normative reasons. Bengson helpfully identifies several features that speak to the character of sensory experiences as appearances while also pertaining to other states that are intuitively characterizable as appearances. In this way, he elucidates a fundamental respect in which these states resemble sensory experiences. Consider a familiar type of impression one has, for example, in detecting the invalidity of an inference. When an inference strikes one as invalid, as we might say, this is usually not a matter of forming an attitude on the basis of a prior conscious thought or experience. Rather, as the locution ‘strike’ suggests, some specific feature of the inference impresses itself on one in a way reminiscent of sensory experience. Like a visual experience, which may be more or less clear, this intellectual experience may vary in acuity. It may not be immediately transparent in which respect the inference is invalid. Also, there is a respect in which one is passive or acted upon in having this impression. Clearly, one does not decide to be struck by the inference’s invalidity. Finally, in having this impression—as opposed to imagining the inference to be invalid—one seems to be in touch with an actual feature of it, which both inclines one to endorse the appearance and, ceteris paribus, also makes this seem a rational thing to do.Footnote 8
To the extent that Dancy’s conception of practical seemings builds on this account of presentation, it goes some way to substantiating the idea of a perception-like access to normative reasons. Also, I take it to be plausible in this context to suppose that in the case of presentations of practical reasons, assent can also be a matter of following practical inclinations.Footnote 9 That said, insofar as—apart from this qualification—Dancy espouses Bengson’s view more or less as it is his conception seems deficient in an important respect. This is because Bengson does not delineate the relevant class of phenomena sufficiently clearly. His treatment fails to make explicit an important difference between presentations and other forms of cognition. As will transpire shortly, paying heed to this difference is crucial in order to correctly identify actual psychological states that provide presentational access to reasons.
Assessing Dancy’s proposal
The difference I have in mind is at least hinted at by Bengson when he characterizes presentations as fundamentally non-voluntary and contrasts them in this respect with doxastic attitudes. In explicating this feature of presentations in terms of passivity or receptivity, Bengson intends to capture the idea that “(…) one simply has (enjoys, suffers, hosts) such a state: it comes upon us unbidden, as if from without” (2015, p. 721). As I read him, he partly characterizes presentations as involuntary in the sense of not being subject to direct voluntary control: we cannot directly engender or get rid of them at will. In this respect, they contrast e.g. with choices, decisions and imaginings. But he also means to characterize presentations as being beyond the kind of indirect rational control we exercise over beliefs, e.g. by revisiting or resorting evidence, looking for new evidence etc., which gets more commonly classed as non-voluntary.Footnote 10 This relatively broad understanding of involuntariness is also supposed to help account for the fact that we are not responsible for presentations in the way we are for other cognitive states such as judgments and imaginings and that they are not governed by proprietary norms. Thus, according to Bengson, it is because perception is fundamentally involuntary that there are no perceptual norms analogous to the norms which apply to doxastic attitudes.
In contrasting the normativity of belief and perception, Bengson touches upon a crucial difference, albeit one that deserves more careful discussion and does not seem usefully treated under the rubric of (in)voluntariness. It is a salient dissimilarity between presentational states and doxastic attitudes that only the latter admit of normative reasons. This is attested by the fact that the question ‘why do you perceive that p?’ (and, similarly, in the case non-propositional forms of presentation: ‘why do you perceive x?’) cannot be sensibly read as a request for a justification.Footnote 11 The same is true of the questions ‘why is it presented to you that p?’ and ‘why is x presented to you?’.Footnote 12 Similarly, presentations do not admit of motivating reasons, i.e. reasons for which we act or hold attitudes, either. It is also meaningless to ask ‘why do you perceive that p?’ or ‘why is it presented to you that p?’ (and, similarly, in the non-propositional case: ‘why do you perceive x?’, ‘why is x presented to you?’) in order to enquire about reasons for which someone enjoys a presentational state regardless of their justificatory import.Footnote 13 Although we may enquire about the causes of a presentation, it makes no sense to suppose that we are presented with objects or their qualities in view of or in light of something. Again, there is a difference here with belief: it is possible by asking ‘why do you believe that p?’ to enquire about the considerations in light of which someone believes that p.
In order to avoid a possible misunderstanding, it is important to be precise about the phenomena under consideration. It can perhaps seem that, depending on the examples we choose, there are cases of presentation which do admit of normative or motivating reasons.Footnote 14 Consider common uses of ‘perceive x as F’. For example, one might think of confronting a police officer who escalates a situation: ‘why are you perceiving his behavior as demanding this violent response?’ In this case, we are clearly asking for a justification. That is, we are enquiring about the reasons for which the officer sees the behavior in this way with a view to assessing whether they are reasons to see it in this way. However, it would be wrong to suppose that we are here dealing with a presentation that admits of reasons (cf. Müller 2019, 77f.). This is because the verbs ‘perceive x as F’, ‘see x as F’ etc. are ambiguous. We can use them both to ascribe an act of construing x as F as well as the corresponding construal, the impression of F-ness which one obtains in construing x as F. Thus, we may ask someone to perceive or see something (e.g. an ambiguous figure, a certain behavior) in some way. In this case, we are asking her to perform the act of construing it in that way. Here, we are not requesting her to be presented with some property of it. This distinction matters for the interpretation of corresponding ‘why’-questions. When we ask ‘why are you seeing this behavior as demanding a violent response?’ in order to enquire about the other’s reasons for seeing the behavior in this way, the reason requested is her reason for construing it in some way, not for the corresponding impression or presentation. Asking for someone’s reasons for having an impression of a certain normative property makes no more sense than enquiring about her reasons for having an impression of a certain shape or color.Footnote 15
To further strengthen this view of presentations and reasons, it is worth noting that it is supported also by reflections on other locutions we use to ascribe motivating reasons for actions or attitudes. This should make it clear that the point ultimately supports an important, though little noted, distinction between different forms of intentionality. Consider an alternative way of attributing motivating reasons by using the verbs ‘response’ and ‘meet’. Here, these terms are used in the same way that they are used e.g. when saying of someone that she responded to or met some event or state of affairs by acting in some way. For example, in saying that Sam responded to his opponent’s move by moving his pawn (or, alternatively, that Sam met his opponent’s move by moving his pawn) we are specifying the opponent’s move to be a reason for which Sam moved his pawn (Bittner 2001, chapter 4; Müller 2019, chapter 3). This use of ‘respond’ and ‘meet’ is applicable to doxastic attitudes, but not to presentations. In particular, these verbs plausibly characterizing the very relation between a belief and its content. Thus, it is not unusual to say of some statement or proposition that it was met or responded to with belief or disbelief.Footnote 16 Moreover, believing is, fundamentally, assenting to a proposition or acknowledging it as true. To acknowledge a proposition as true is to respond to its (apparent) truth in a particular way, i.e. in that way which is appropriate to true propositions.Footnote 17 In contrast, we cannot respond to or meet something by being presented with it or by having a certain impression. In this respect, doxastic attitudes and presentational states are different kinds of intentional state.
This contrast in terms of responsiveness bears highlighting since it helps situate presentations more clearly within the familiar repertoire of psychological states. In particular, while amplifying the distinction stressed by Bengson between beliefs and presentational states, it helps clarify their relation also to other, non-doxastic attitudes. Thus, emotions admit of motivating and normative reasons, too. We commonly enquire about the reasons for which people are indignant, afraid, delighted etc. and assess whether they are reasons to be indignant, afraid, delighted etc. Moreover, as is seldomly noted, emotions likewise are intentionally directed at something insofar as they are responses. For you to be indignant about x is for you to be indignant in light of or in response to x (or, alternatively, to meet x with indignation). Similarly, for you to be afraid of x is for you be afraid in light of or in response to x (or, alternatively, to meet x with fear) (Norrick 1978, 65ff.; cf. also Müller 2017, 2019, chapter 3).Footnote 18 Accordingly, emotions, too, seem to differ from presentations in respect of their intentionality (cf. also Peacocke 2004, 259f.; Müller 2019, chapter 3).
This further observation is significant in part in that it suggests that Bengson’s account of presentations is incomplete in an important respect. It calls for further amendment since this difference between presentations and emotions is even less plausibly subsumed under the rubric of (in)voluntariness. Not only is there a clear respect in which, at least typically, we cannot have or get rid of an emotion at will. Emotions are also quite often beyond the kind of indirect rational control we have over beliefs. Crucially, they are characteristically insensitive to relevant evidence (e.g. Goldie 2004).Footnote 19 Thus, emotions seem to be on a par with presentations in being exempt from the forms of control Bengson refers to in explicating the idea of fundamental (in)voluntariness. This suggests that the contrast between responsive and non-responsive phenomena is more adequately treated as a contrast in its own right.Footnote 20
Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the responsive character of emotion spells bad news for Dancy’s case for the existence of practical seemings. If emotions, but not presentations, are responses, they constitute a very different kind of intentional state. In this respect, there is a fundamental difference with presentations whose object or content does not provide a corresponding motivating reason. I take this to cast serious doubt on the view that emotions are practical seemings. Given their responsive character, they are the wrong kind of state to be of service to the perceptualist (cf. also Peacocke 2004, 259f.; Müller 2019, chapter 3).
To appreciate the force of this objection, it is helpful to emphasize that it goes beyond the observation that emotions, but not presentations admit of reasons, in relating this difference to the intentionality of each type of state. Presentational states and emotions fundamentally differ qua intentional. In Searle’s (1983) terminology, they exemplify different kinds of intentional mode. Although it seems to me that the difference in respect of the admissibility of reasons by itself casts some doubt on Dancy’s proposal, linking this point to the notion of intentionality makes it difficult to simply dismiss it as irrelevant to the nature of these two types of state. This is because their intentional profile is widely seen to be an essential feature of them.Footnote 21 Let me clarify also that this objection does not boil down to the observation that emotions, but not ordinary perceptions, depend for their intentionality on other cognitive states (known as their ‘cognitive base’; cf. Deonna and Teroni 2012). As many authors have noted, in order to be indignant about or afraid of some object or event, one must have some prior awareness of it. In contrast, this is not true of perceptual experiences, which seem to be ‘self-standing’ intentional phenomena. Although this is an important difference, too, it is relevant for my purposes only insofar as it underlines the idea that emotions are directed in a specific way that involves their responsive character. Indeed, a very simple and plausible explanation of the fact that emotions, but not perceptions, have a cognitive basis is precisely that only in the former case, the intentional content of the state is also a motivating reason (Hildebrand 1969, 13ff.; Müller 2019, 68f.). This requirement is an instance of the common constraint that motivating reasons for an action or attitude must be within the agent’s cognitive ken. The main dialectical force of this difference, I thus take it, is that it speaks to the specific way in which emotions are intentional and which distinguishes them from presentations.Footnote 22 It is this disanalogy which most clearly tells against Dancy’s proposal.
Let me sum up then: While Dancy makes some progress towards elucidating the perceptualist’s target phenomenon, he draws on a general account of presentation that does not properly distinguish presentations from other forms of intentionality. In turn, Dancy fails to specify a familiar psychological phenomenon that is apt to provide presentational access to reasons.
It is fair adding that Dancy is by no means alone in mistaking emotion for a kind of presentation. Many theorists sympathetic to the view that we enjoy presentational access to value think of this access as constituted by emotions (e.g. Roberts 2013; Kauppinen 2013; Tappolet 2016; Poellner 2016). Thus, if the considerations I have canvassed here are on the right lines, they tell against this group of views, too (cf. also Mulligan 2007; Dietz 2018; Müller 2019, chapter 3). Moreover, mutatis mutandis they rule out further candidates for a presentational access to normative reasons. In particular, they also tell against conceiving of this access in conative rather than emotional terms.
In line with a specific interpretation of the view that we desire something under a certain normative guise, one might suggest that we can instead conceive of desires as affording this access.Footnote 23 However, what goes for beliefs and emotions, goes for desires, too. Desires admit of normative and motivating reasons and are directed in the same responsive way as beliefs and emotions. ‘Why do you desire that p?’ and ‘why do you desire to ϕ?’ are most naturally construed as requests for reasons. Moreover, the verbs ‘meet’ and ‘respond’ apply also to the relation between a desire and its intentional content. For you to desire that p (to ϕ) is for you to respond to the prospect that p (of your ϕing) (or, alternatively, for this prospect to be met by you) with desire. It is in light of this prospect or, most plausibly, its character as an end that you hold this attitude. Note, further, that this account sits well with the fact that desires, too, have a cognitive basis. In order for you to desire that p (to ϕ), this prospect must in one or another way be on your mind (e.g. Brentano 1995, 60f.; Mulligan 2007). As in the case of emotion, we can give a straightforward explanation of this requirement by adverting to the responsive character of desire.Footnote 24
In order to build a more adequate case for perceptualism, I shall thus explicitly add the non-responsive character of presentations to the profile of general features of presentational states. More specifically, I propose to distinguish between lack of direct voluntary control, lack of indirect rational control and non-responsiveness as different general features of presentations. As I think of the latter two features, they are closely related, though. As normally conceived, indirect rational control is exercised over attitudes qua responses. We exercise rational control over beliefs by forming and revising them in response to adequate evidence. While this type of control is thus applicable only to responses, the case of the emotions at the same time casts some doubt on whether all responses are subject to it.Footnote 25
I take this to be a non-trivial amendment of Bengson’s account of presentations and, accordingly, of Dancy’s characterization of the perceptualist’s target. Whilst acknowledging the specificity Dancy highlights in respect of practical assent, I will assume in what follows that presentations of practical reasons are characterized by a more complex profile of features than Dancy recognizes and which rules out emotions and any other responses as possible candidates for this target. With this amended account in place, let me, then, introduce a more promising contender.