Review:

Posted 11/06/00

"What's Special About Humeanism" Noûs, Vol. 33, No. 1 (1999) 30-45, by Donald C. Hubin (Ohio State University),

Reviewed by David Sobel (Bowling Green State University)
(sobel@BGNet.bgsu.edu)



d-drop.gif - 1.3 Konald Hubin's concise and helpful paper aims to explicate a special virtue that Humean accounts of reasons for action have that other accounts lack. Hubin decomposes the Humean doctrine into two theses; 1) pure instrumentalism and 2) that reasons are based in desires (broadly construed).

Pure instrumentalism "holds that reasons are communicated from ends to means--that he who has a reason for the end also has a reason for the means." (p. 32) It makes "no claims about the sources of reasons." (p. 32) Hubin argues persuasively that pure instrumentalism, separated from the other half of the Humean doctrine, is extremely innocuous.

The second half of the Humean account is the thesis that all genuine reasons for action are based in desires. More specifically, if consideration C intrinsically provides A a reason to 0 it must be that C answers to or promotes some desire in A. Due to this feature of the Humean account, Hubin thinks we can say that it takes up the "evaluative point of view" of the agent whose reasons are in question. That is, the point of view that generates reasons for A, according to the Humean account, is A's evaluative point of view. According to the Humean

It is the agent's valuations [that is, her desires broadly construed] that generate ... reasons for action. Let us say that those valuations define the agent's evaluative point of view. ... Only on the Humean theory [is] the agent ... not logically free to remain unmoved by the evaluative point of view in question; for this point of view is defined by what motivates the agent. ... There is a special kind of practical defeat in those unmoved by Humean reasons. They run afoul of pure instrumentalism; whereas those unmoved by other sorts of reasons may simply not be moved by those features that ground the evaluation of the state of affairs in question. (p. 38)

To say that those that do not act to further their Humean ends are guilty of running afoul of pure instrumentalism is just to say that what the Humean says are an agent's ends really are her ends. And this is something each theory would say of the ends it recommends. Thus I think what Hubin is centrally claiming is special about Humeanism is that an agent is peculiarly unable to resist the thought that what the Humean says are her ends really are her ends.

Hubin allows that an agent can be unmoved to take the means to the ends ascribed by the Humean theory. Yet even this unmoved agent cannot plead that she "does not care about the ends" (p. 39) that the Humean ascribes to her for the Humean only counts them as her ends if he finds them amongst her concerns.

Now of course Hubin knows that the Humean theory might claim that C provides A a reason to 0, yet A might nonetheless insist that C is not really an end for her. This can surely happen when A does not realize that C is what the Humean theory claims is an end for her. Rather, the claim must be that if A fully accepts that the Humean theory says that C sets an end for her, she must allow that C truly is an end for her. That is, we cannot sensibly deny that the Humean theory extracts our ends from our concerns in an authoritative manner. Thus I take it then that Hubin's central claim about what is special about Humeanism is that one cannot sincerely believe that the Humean theory recommends C as an end for one yet coherently claim that C is not really an end for one (assuming that one has an adequate understanding of how the Humean accounts work).

There is a possible alternative interpretation of Hubin in which all he is saying is that the end as the Humean determines it is something that has some connection to the agent's motivations and concerns and thus that the agent cannot deny that she has some concerns about or is in some way moved by that which the Humean recommends. On this interpretation the agent could coherently think that the Humean theory has fixed on the wrong cares and concerns in generating claims about her ends. A theory that claimed that one's ends are solely determined by what one would most desire to eat would also connect one's ends with one's conative states, but not in a very plausible way. But so understood, the claim that what is special about Humeanism is that it has some connection to an agent's concerns does not seem unique to Humean accounts and it does not look as if it could by itself help vindicate the thought that Humeanism has a special virtue as a theory of reasons. Thus I stick with my understanding of Hubin's claim as I expressed it in the paragraph above.

But I think this understanding of Hubin's thesis makes the thesis false. Let me call the general problem here the "extraction problem." Hubin claims that the Humean is able to extract the agent's genuine ends from her concerns in a way that the agent must allow to be authoritative. But I think that no Humean theory can do this. No method of extraction that the Humean can offer will look authoritative to all agents. Thus there will always be room for sensible people to understand that the Humean theory says that they have this or that end, yet be alienated from that end.

Let me offer one example of how the extraction problem arises. A popular version of the Humean account has it that one's ends are determined by what one would find motivating after being granted full factual information. Better still, the idea could be that one's ends are determined by what the informed self would in some sense recommend to the uninformed self.

The important point is that the method of idealization, in this case being granted full information, is typically fixed by the theorist, not the agent whose reasons are being investigated. That is, the typical Humean method of extraction of ends from concerns does not necessarily take up the evaluative point of view of the agent whose reasons are in question. Rather, it imposes a one size fits all method of extraction on the agent. Thus, since it is not beyond sensible dispute that this method of idealization authoritatively extracts one's ends from one's concern, it follows that an agent can sincerely deny that this Humean account successfully determines her genuine ends. A person might sincerely think that she is not ideally situated to determine her true reasons for action when full informed. Maybe having all that information would just freak me out.

I have boldly claimed that the Humean cannot offer a method of extraction that commands assent from all sensible people. But I have meekly put forth only one case study of a Humean proposal that seems to me to illustrate this claim. I clearly cannot argue here by exhaustion. Thus perhaps it is best to put my case as a challenge. I have not seen a method of extraction that has this power and I doubt that there is one. Let those that claim that they have such a method of extraction show themselves and speak plainly.

Now it might still be claimed that what Humeanism has going for it is that everyone must allow that her ends are in some way or other extractable from her conative system. If we call Humean any theory that determines an agent's ends by in some way or other extracting them from the agent's conative system, then we might be able to get the conclusion that an agent must accept that some Humean account or other provides a true account of her ends. But this will not help us avoid the extraction problem since any concrete Humean proposal about an agent's ends will presuppose a contestable method of extracting ends from concerns and so will yield conclusions about an agent's ends that she can sensible resist.

The inspiration for the extraction problem comes from Connie Rosati's wonderful article "Internalism and the Good for a Person," Ethics 1996. There she noticed, in effect, that there is room for an agent to be alienated from the standard Humean method of extraction of ends from concerns. Her response was to give the agent some control over the method of extraction from her concerns to her ends so that she could not be so alienated from the extracted ends. However, Rosati rightfully suspects that such a move severely threatens the cognitivism of the view. And Humeanism, as I understand it, is committed to the thesis that there is a fact of the matter concerning what I have reason to do.

Thus the Humean cannot determine an agent's ends in a way that the agent cannot be alienated from. No Humean account is such that a sensible agent cannot dispute that it sets her genuine ends. I suspect that many Humeans tacitly hold the thesis that Hubin expresses. Thus it might be that many Humeans would be disappointed in Humeanism, perhaps to the point of disenchantment, if they came to believe what I have argued. I myself think that Humeanism can and should live with what I have argued. But if so, we Humeans will have to search elsewhere to vindicate the thought that there is some special virtue that a Humean account of reasons for action has over its rivals.

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