An Argument for the Systematic Nature of Our Motivations

05 July 2018

Facing a choice between rescuing Aristotle’s lost works and saving Socrates from the death penalty, I’d choose the former. I’d rather live in an alternative history where Napoleon won the war, than in one where the Austrian-Hungarian Empire persisted. When it comes to the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I want Scott to end up with Ramona rather than Knives.

In all of these cases one might wonder why I have these motivations. My desires and preferences seem misplaced since I’m incapable of acting on them. I can neither rescue Aristotle’s lost texts, make Napoleon win the war, nor ensure that Scott and Ramona remain a couple. The realisation of all these propositions lies so far outside my powers that one might wonder why I bother to have any motivational states towards them. Why do we have motivational states regarding propositions where these states have no causal effect, at least no direct effect, on our practical behaviour? It seems wasteful.

In response one might deny my assumption that we have such motivational states. There are two ways to do this, first by saying that we are not dealing here with motivational states at all, second by claimin that we have different but near-by motivations.

On the first approach, one could draw a distinction between motivational and purely evaluative attitudes and argue that in my examples I only have evaluative states, not motivational states. I evaluate Aristotle’s works as more important than prolonging Socrates’ life without the judgement having motivational force. The idea of living in a world where Napoleon won the war over one where the Austrian-Hungarian Empire might please me more than the reversed proposition without the pleasure having motivational force. On this proposal the states are merely evaluational because they do not pertain to me as an agent, but only as a patient.

The second version of the response is that what looks like a motivational state regarding a proposition outside my causal efficacy instead concerns propositions upon which I have some influence after al. My claim about Aristotle and Socrates might be taken as concerning my preference for reading one actually available text over the other. I might not be able to help Napoleon win the war rather than the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but if I have to choose between the two sides in a computer game I’ll fight as Napoleon. When I say that I want Scott to end up with Ramona rather than Knives, than this might be taken as a statement about which of the two available movie endings I’d rather watch. Redescription gives the motivational states a role in likely conduct.

Concerning the first approach, I have considerable doubts that there are purely evaluative attitudes, that is states which are not linked up to our motivational system. However, even granting we could make sense of such states, my examples are not of this kind. I actually have choice dispositions regarding the sketched possiblities: On the far off possible world, where I have access to a time machine I will save Aristotle’s lost works first. So I have these motivational states, even they appear rather superfluous, because I won’t get access to a time machine. This insistance on my motivations also works against the second version of the response.

In a similar vein, I don’t buy this second solution, because I trust my claims as they stand without considerable reinterpretation. These reinterpretations just introduce changes which are too massive to be plausible. I want Scott and Ramona to end up, even if I were to never see the movie (or read the comics etc.) again. You might deny that I know how to intrepret my own descriptions of my motivations, but if we are happy to curtail introspective access to our motivational states that easily, then there’s not much point to my argument at all. My case relies on my motivational introspection. That’s a limitation of my overall argument.

Accepting my self-ascriptions at face value, we are back to my question: Why do we have motivational states regarding propositions where these states have no direct effect on our practical behaviour? The second resonpose gets something right, or so I want to suggest. It correctly suggests that my three confessed states at the beginning of this post reveal information about my actual motivations. They might not assure which ending of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World I want to see next time, but they tell you something about my actually effective motivations. I’m the kind of person who wants relationships to go this way than the other, the kind of person who would rather live in a Europe unified under Napoleon than the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the kind of person who would rescue Aristotle’s books rather than Socrates. Motivational states come in a package, or at least in connected packages.

The connected and systematic nature of our motivational lives explains why we have these seemingly superfluous states. They come with the whole and we do not have to pay an extra price for maintaining them. Their existence therefore allows to construct an argument for the systematic nature of our motivations. The argument is not deductive but includes an inference to the best explanation: We need an explanation for why we have these states. The best explanation, so I propose, is that they come with other motivational states because all (or at least most) of them share an underlying structure.

The idea that our motivations exhibit a systematic nature is not entirely new. Take for example the notion of a practical identitfy found in Korsegaard’s work (1996). In a more formal approach to agency, the reason-based decision theory introduced by Dietrich and List (2016) introduces an underlying structure of reasons which gives a unity to our preferences over alternatives. What I want to suggest here in addition is that by looking at our seemingly superfluous motivational states we can learn about what kind of systematic structure underlies our motivational life. For example, that I want Scott to end up with Ramona tells you that the our motivational packages do not end at actuality but reach into fiction.


  • Dietrich, F., & List, C. (2016). Reason-Based Choice and Context-Dependence: An Explanatory Framework. Economics & Philosophy, 32(2), 175–229.
  • Korsegaard, C. (1996). The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge University Press.