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Affect, Rationalization, and Motivation


Recently, a number of writers have presented an argument to the effect that leading causal theories make available accounts of affect’s motivational role, but at the cost of failing to understand affect’s rationalizing role. Moreover, these writers have gone on to argue that these considerations support the adoption of an alternative (“evaluationist”) conception of pleasure and pain that, in their view, successfully explains both the motivational and rationalizing roles of affective experience. We believe that this argument from rationalization is ineffective in choosing between evaluationist and causal theories of affective experience, and that the impression to the contrary rests on a serious misunderstanding of the dialectic between the two views. We’ll describe general forms of causal and evaluationist theories, set out the argument that has been deployed by evaluationists against causal theorists, and then show how that argument rests on crucial and highly controversial presuppositions.

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  1. 1.

    The question of rational connection arises in several otherwise disjoint areas of philosophy. Its natural home, of course, is in moral psychology and decision theory, where the question specifically concerns the nature of reasons and our motivations for action (see, e.g. Smith 1987; Parfit and Broome 1997; Mele 2003).

  2. 2.

    Affect is also sometimes referred to as the hedonic or valenced component of motivating experiences.

  3. 3.

    For this reason, we refer to this class of views as “causal” in nature. As we’ll describe below, this class is wide, including many individual views, all versions of functionalism, and, importantly for us, imperative views. It is also neutral with respect to one’s theory of causation.

  4. 4.

    Though we take the argument from rationalization as our central focus in what follows, we emphasize that evaluationists differ in the extent to which they have rested their cases for the view (and against alternatives) on this argument. Thus, for example, while Bain (2013) directs a version of the argument against imperativists, he joins others who do not (e.g., Cutter and Tye 2011) in offering additional arguments against the imperative view based on the supposed failure of commands to account for pain’s degrees of intensity. Again, we do not see ourselves as intervening here on behalf of any particular causal view, or defending such views against all possible lines of criticism; our focus here is squarely on what we’re calling the argument from rationalization.

  5. 5.

    Again, highlighting the generality of this discussion, we note that imperative views have been deployed as an explanation of other states besides pain. Indeed, Hall’s paper is primarily an account of itch. Other states that seem amenable to an imperative account include thirst, hunger, and other basic urges. We believe that the points made here about rationalization and motivation carry over wholesale to the related debates about the connection between reason and action for such urges (for instance, one might be tempted to claim that an urge cannot rationalize if it is entirely constituted by a particular disposition or reflexive action).

  6. 6.

    Note that this criticism does not assume that the commands in question are merely reflexive. For as imperativists make clear, the commands do not compel us by literally forcing us to react in various ways:

    All these imperative bodily sensations can occur with different degrees of intensity, and the more intense, the harder to resist. But even at their most irresistible, these imperative sensations and their resultant actions are completely different from true reflexes, like the knee jerk. Reflexes should be viewed either as purely mechanical linkages not involving any sensory messages with intentional content at all, or else, if involving intentional content, then as imperatives that go to some lower level action centre (physically in the spinal cord, perhaps), not accessible to, and not under the control of, the beliefs and desires of the Higher Cognitive Centre (Hall 2008, 534–535).

  7. 7.

    We reiterate that the argument from rationalization is not the only motivation evaluationists have put forward for their view, and that there are evaluationists (e.g., Cutter and Tye 2011) who don’t endorse the argument at all (cf. note 4).

  8. 8.

    The evaluative view is thus importantly different from the related ‘attitudinal’ views usually applied to sensory pleasure. According to attitudinal theories, for an experience to be pleasant (or painful) is for the agent to take a positive (or negative) attitude toward that experience. The evaluationist does not explicitly posit a separate mental attitude as constitutive of the pleasant or painful aspects of the experience. Instead, the pain or pleasure state consists entirely of a special kind of evaluative content. Nevertheless, there are important points of overlap, especially in the versions defended by Helm and O’Sullivan & Schroer, since they make use of broad notions like concern that seem to go beyond the content of any single state. The “attitudinal” terminology is found in Feldman (2002); a recent defense of such views can be found in Heathwood (2006)— see Smuts (2011) and Bramble (2013) for critical discussion.

  9. 9.

    Evaluationists differ in how, exactly, they cash out such evaluative contents (and some of the accounts are quite involved). While we won’t catalog the options here, the details do matter; as we’ll see, it will be almost impossible for the evaluationist to account for these sorts of contents in a way that preserves for them the force of the argument from rationalization.

  10. 10.

    Though we present here a version of the argument targeting imperativism for pain (which is standardly understood as a species of representationalism about its target), the argument can be easily adapted to any other causal view of affect, including especially functional and dispositional accounts of pain (which are not). Given that this is so, and that our discussion below abstracts from issues about representationalism, it will be useful to confine ourselves to the version targeting imperativism for reasons of specificity and simplicity.

  11. 11.

    This claim about perspectives is mentioned somewhat offhandedly in Bain (2013); it is not clear whether he takes it as an unrelated argument against causal accounts or a piece of support for (2).

  12. 12.

    Our reconstruction of the support for the premise is, of necessity, largely conjectural, and hence possibly inaccurate. We certainly don’t mean to close off the possibility that someone might attempt to argue for (2) by considerations stemming from more specific requirements of rationalizing action in particular (while allowing that causes might have what it takes to provide rational warrant for things other than actions). (This would be the possibility alluded to above as ( 2∗)). We find it difficult to imagine just how such an argument would go: offhand, it’s hard to see why action should impose further, special requirements on its rationalizers that go beyond the requirements on rationalization in general. But if someone has an argument of this kind to offer, we’re all ears.

  13. 13.

    For instance, how can high-level states like beliefs have causal efficacy if they are realized by the components of relatively low-level neural systems? (See e.g., Kim 1992, 1998).

  14. 14.

    Moreover, as we’ll argue below (Section 2.4) even if the asymmetry itself turns out to be unproblematic, the evaluationist still has to buy into at least one additional substantive controversial thesis—motivational internalism—to get her view on the playing field. (Cf. Helm 2002, note 3)

  15. 15.

    Extant evaluationists have also, as far as we know, typically endorsed naturalistic theories (e.g., some version of a tracking theory) of the representation relation that connects subjects to such contents. Helm (2002) is a bit more circumspect about how he plans to cash out the notions of ‘import’ and ‘concern’ used in his theory, but nothing he says indicates a non-naturalized psychosemantics.

  16. 16.

    Needless to say, many other naturalistic accounts of the evaluationist’s crucial evaluative content are possible. We take this list to be representative but not exhaustive.

  17. 17.

    Recall that the notion of ‘cause’ here is very broadly understood to include dispositional, functional, psychofunctional, and statistical forms of interaction. The reduction at issue thus does not require reduction to particular physical mechanisms. Given the broad notion of cause used here, we don’t think it’s controversial to assume that the realization base of our best scientific explanations (that is, naturalism) must consist of some combination of causal elements.

  18. 18.

    Besides avoiding the controversial commitment, allowing that pains motivate only in the presence of further conative elements might also carry the additional benefit of providing a story about the otherwise problematic morphine pain and asymbolia cases.

  19. 19.

    Good entries into the debates about moral and practical motivation, with a particular focus on the debate between internalists and externalists, include Railton (1986), Smith (1994), Brink (1997), Svavarsdottir (1999), Shafer-Landau (2000), Wallace (1990), Pettit and Smith (1990), Helm (2001).


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We are grateful to Murat Aydede, David Brink, and an anonymous referee for extremely helpful comments. We would also like to thank David Bain and Michael Brady for their outstanding editorial efforts.

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Correspondence to Matthew Fulkerson.

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This work is fully collaborative; the authors are listed alphabetically.

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Cohen, J., Fulkerson, M. Affect, Rationalization, and Motivation. Rev.Phil.Psych. 5, 103–118 (2014).

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  • Causal Theorist
  • Representational Content
  • Affective Experience
  • Mental Causation
  • Motivational Internalism