Reason as a Motive to Action

Aristotle was of the opinion (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6) that the aim or end of the process of willing is set only by our desires, and that reason is required to discover the means to achieve those ends. This was echoed by David Hume, who wrote, in Treatise on Human Nature, that "reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions". Thus the ends at which we aim are determined by our innate instincts and preferences, leaving reason to assist only in finding the best ways to attain these ends.

This view has in the past been challenged in a variety of ways.

1. Sometimes the desire to act in a consistent manner and avoid contradiction - as it is sometimes called, to behave rationally - may override other desires. Thus a thief may feel a pang of pity for his victims, but he would very likely pull himself together by arguing that he should not allow his emotions to get in the way of pursuing his professional calling.

2. When there is a choice of desirable options to aim for, then reason will be called on to choose between them, so in that sense, reason could be said to be setting the aims in this situation.

3. A strong criticism of the theory is that it makes an artificial distinction between reason and desire which does not exist in practice. The mind exists and operates as a unity, with the "component" parts of it working together in a seamless manner.

4. Reason and reflection may suggest a course of action, and if this is later accompanied by a desire the action may be put into effect. Some might argue that desire is still the determining factor, but here, reasoning has also played a part.

5. Introspection (a reasoning process) may lead us to suspend our judgement, and leave the execution of a desirable course of action until a later time, after which it may happen that other considerations have arisen which will influence our desires. For example, if I write an angry letter to someone, it may happen that if I do not send it immediately, but perhaps wait until next morning, I may discover some rational considerations which make the sending of the letter seem less desirable.

These objections (and others) can lead us on to the possibility of our actions being determined, not so much by our desires and instincts, as by a "sense of duty" or conscience.

Socrates, who is often celebrated as the founder of Western philosophy, held that knowledge is virtue. In his view, a clear understanding of what is good would inevitably overcome all our other tendencies to action and thus would lead to right conduct.


veryheaven said...

ain´t it funny :-)
Watch deeply, then you will become the host and thoughts will be the guests. And as guests they are beautiful, but if you forget completely that you are the host and they become the hosts, then you are in a mess. This is what hell is. You are the master of the house, the house belongs to you, and guests have become the masters. Receive them, take care of them, but don´t get identified with them; otherwise, they will become the masters.

The mind becomes the problem because you have taken thoughts so deeply inside you that you have forgotten completely the distance; that they are visitors, they come and go. Always remember that which abides: that is your nature, your tao. Always be attentive to that which never comes and never goes, just like the sky. Change the gestalt: don´t be focused on the visitors, remain rooted in the host; the visitors will come and go.


Roxy said...

I enjoyed your blog - very deep and interesting! I'll follow your blog and post it on my blog.
Thanks again for your comments and visiting my blog.
Come back soon.

Sofia said...

To Roxy: Thank you for your comment. You are very kind. x

surjit said...

Yes, it is very true:
..'a clear understanding of what is good would inevitably overcome all our other tendencies to action and thus would lead to right conduct..'
Thanks Sofia for sharing wisdom of the great philosophers.
God bless.

Sofia said...

To surjit: Thank you for your great kindness in reading and commenting on my post.

Yes, Socrates is certainly one of the greatest philosophers of the West. His authority is impressive, and universal. It's interesting that he himself wrote nothing, and his philosophy comes to us through the writings of his pupil, Plato. Socrates is the main character in all Plato's writings, and there has been much speculation as to how much of the philosophy is Plato's own and how much is Socrates.

One of the 20th century English philosophers once declared that the entire history of Western philosophy could be summed up in a single phrase - "footnotes to Plato."

Winton Bates said...

Very interesting.

It seems to me that neurological research suggests that Hume was close to the truth in asserting that the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason.

There seems to be a close link between our emotions (eg feelings of disgust) and our moral intuitions (rationalisations)about such feelings.

I acknowledge that our intuitions are influenced by our introspections as well as our upbringing and our genes.

Someone cleverer than myself could possibly also relate this to what Aristotle wrote about "practical reason".

Sofia said...

Yes, and in our society, attitudes about morality are deeply influenced by the Utilitarianism of Bentham and J. S. Mill, which ultimately derive from the Greek Hedonist school. These ideas tend to contradict the notion of reason as the primary source of moral valuations, making it appear strange to our thinking. One reads, however, that this has not been the case in all societies and times.

Michael August said...

So, what do we do? Impulse and instinct, regardless of the reason that may frame them, often influence our action, to whatever degree, though enough so that we find too much of what we have done disagreeable. However, a people that can learn, even of themselves, may coordinate their action according to what they understand and change what they do. Where would you say that leaves us?