Monday, January 2, 2012

Choice, rationality and contrastivity

Suppose I choose A over B. For me to have chosen over B, B must have been a relevant alternative. For instance, I am choosing to write this post over doing dishes, but I am not choosing to write this post over plugging in a soldering iron and grabbing its hot tip. Why? Well, I was impressed by some reasons in favor of doing dishes but not impressed by any reasons in favor of holding the tip of a hot soldering iron.

To choose A over B, I not only needed to have a reason to choose A, but also a reason to choose B. Moreover, plausibly, choices are contrastive and so are the reasons for them. If so, then the reason to choose B would have to have been a contrastive reason, a reason for choosing B over A. If this is right, then to choose A over B, I need a reason for A over B and a reason for B over A. Now when A rationally dominates B for me in the sense that any of my reasons for B is at least as much a reason for A, then I have no reason for B over A. But lacking a reason for B over A, I cannot choose A over B, paradoxical as that sounds. I may have reason to do A rather than B, but this isn't a matter of choice, because B is not a relevant alternative to A, since in the context of a choice between A and B, there are no reasons for B, i.e., no reasons for B over A.

We now have several principles:

  • Rationality of Choice: one can only choose between options for which there are reasons in the context of choice
  • Contrastivity of Reasons: reasons in the context of choice are always reasons for an option over the alternatives
  • Domination Principle: choice between A and B is impossible when every reason for B is at least as much a reason for A
  • Incommensurability Principle: choice between A and B is only possible when there is a reason for each of these that isn't, or isn't as much, a reason for the other.
The Domination and Incommensurability Principles are equivalent, and are basically endorsed by Aquinas. The argument at the beginning of the post shows that Rationality of Choice plus Contrastivity of Reasons implies the Domination and Incommensurability Principles.

An interesting consequence of the Incommensurability Principle is that one's moral psychology had better not endorse both of the following theses:

  • Total Ordering of Strengths: for any two desires d1 and d2, either they are equal in strength, or one is stronger than the other
  • Desires are Reasons: the reasons on the basis of which one chooses are desires and their strengths are the strengths of reasons.
For Total Ordering of Strengths, Desires are Reasons and Incommensurability together implies that there are no choices.

Humean compatibilists are committed to Desires are Reasons. Humean determinists are committed to Total Ordering of Strengths given how on Humean grounds we can test the strength of desire by seeing what the agent is determined by her psychological state to choose. If this is right then if Rationality and Contrastivity are true, Humeanism needs to be rejected.

1 comment:

D.M. said...

Couldn't the Humean push back on Contrastivity of Reasons? After all, they aren't going to allow there to be any alternatives in the sense that the libertarian wants. If you only mean alternatives in a psychological sense, that is, that the agent have knowledge of, or be aware of, different choices, couldn't they push back there as well by suggesting that we choose without being aware of the alternatives (at least sometimes)?