Reasons and Research

Gareth Lavan
Sunday 31 May 2015

Hello all.

And so the purgatorial period of exams conclude. Mine went… Well, they went. And now that they’ve went, they’ve gone, and that’s just that. It can be disquieting to ruminate too seriously over what you’ve just produced in an exam – I always imagine it as akin to the experience of hooking your brain up to some sort of monitor that gives data on the strength of your brain activity, and then being quite underwhelmed at the flatlining read-outs.

A cheery opener for you.

That said, over the course of revision I did try and implement the techniques that Magdelena instilled us with over the Leadership Weekend, and they did bear fruit. I think I probably had my most productive revision period ever at St. Andrews. I was much more focused, and was able to finish tasks in their entirety, rather than just plodding along to the exam hall just ‘knowing a bit’ about each topic. Nevertheless, right toward the end it was hard going, it always is. Sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and sometimes even the spirit gives up the ghost (excuse the pun).

I just finished the online research ethics module. Interesting stuff. It’s often useful for one to step back and survey one’s own implicit biases before one traverses any mode of inquiry whatsoever, and I guess that the module was designed to render explicit those possible biases. My only criticism is that it didn’t really pertain to my research. Philosophical research is broadly quite innocent, in a sense. Read, talk, write, repeat, that sort of thing. Nevertheless, it was good to have a look over those ethical issues.

My research commences officially next Monday, but I’ve already met up with my supervisor, and started doing some preparatory reading for it. As luck would have it, from 1st-2nd of June, the philosophy department are actually running a conference on pretty much the very topic that I’m researching. Some very well known thinkers in the field will be attending, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to meet a few of them and have a chinwag. I think I’ll take this opportunity to provide an unsolicited overview of what my research actually involves.

My research bestrides two main fields in philosophy, Practical Rationality (which asks questions like ‘under what conditions can my actions be construed as rational?’, and more broadly, ‘what is it for me to have a reason to act in a certain way?’), and Meta-Ethics, (which asks questions like ‘what is morality? Is it objective? Is it Subjective?’ and so on). In particular I’m studying the effects and repercussions that a theory in the former field, known as ‘Reasons-Internalism’, has on the latter field. Reasons-Internalism posits that you have a normative reason, (a reason that counts in favour, or against, you performing a certain action), to act in a certain way, if and only if you have a desire or goal that will be served by acting in that certain way. You have a reason to fill in your blog post, because you have a desire that will be satisfied in doing so, namely your desire to complete one of the requirements of being a Laidlaw intern. So in essence your reasons depend on what desires or aims you have. However this quite intuitive picture runs up against a problem known as The Central Problem. The Central Problem for Reasons-Internalism can be characterised as follows: if my reasons depend on my desires, then what if I have no desire to be moral? If Reasons-Internalism is true, then it would follow that I have no reason to be moral. But isn’t morality supposed to be objective? Isn’t it supposed to give reasons to agents, irrespective of what desires they might have? It is these issues that I’ll be getting into over the course of my research.

The hawkish chap in the photo Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here’s an epithet of his;  “It seems to me that, in every culture, I come across a chapter headed ‘Wisdom’. And then I know exactly what is going to follow. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.

A cheery closer for you.

Ludwig Wittgenstein , schoolteacher, c. 1922  Permission, courtesy of the Joan Ripley Private Collection; Michael Nedo and the Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge; and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Ludwig Wittgenstein , schoolteacher, c. 1922
Permission, courtesy of the Joan Ripley Private Collection; Michael Nedo and the Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge; and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.



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