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Ethics and the A PrioriReview - Ethics and the A Priori
Selected Essays on Moral Psychology and Meta-Ethics
by Michael Smith
Cambridge University Press, 2004
Review by Constantine Sandis, Ph.D.
Mar 6th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 10)

As the title suggests, this eagerly anticipated new record of seventeen previously released pieces divides into two parts (of roughly equal length), the first dealing with issues in moral psychology and the second with meta-ethical questions

Needless to say this thematically arranged single-volume anthology is not exhaustive. Inconspicuous by its absence, for example, is Smith's most famous (and arguably also his most influential) article The Humean Theory of Motivation (from Mind, 1987). One might be forgiven for thinking that this is the result of Smith (or the publishing house) undertaking to compile a Best of collection, rather than a Greatest Hits. However a simpler and far more plausible explanation lies in the fact that the piece has since already reappeared in numerous compilations as well as (in an extended remix) in chapter 4 of his earlier title, the 1994 hit book The Moral Problem. Moreover, the essays here date from 1988 to 2003 and may thus be thought to represent the post HTM Smith (i.e. from around the period when he first came to be known as 'Dr. Smith').Included are his two duets with Jeanette Kennett, but for the philosopher's joint work with Frank Jackson and Philip Petit, readers must look to the trio's astounding release of instrumental ensemble pieces and duets (on some of which Smith is the lead vocalist), Minds, Morality, and Explanation: Selected Collaborations (Clarendon Press: 2004), .

Professor Smith's complete solo output as a speaker/paper-writer consists of over eighty single articles released over thirty years (from 1977 to 2007), several b-sides (chiefly reviews from his 'Monash years'), one long player (the aforementioned The Moral Problem), various entries and editorials, and dozens of unreleased presentations including the already legendary spiritual 'Is That All There Is?', available as a bootleg PDF but best heard live (2005 tour). Fans of the professor's earlier, shorter work - such as the inspirational single 'Did Socrates Kill Himself Intentionally?' (from Philosophy 55, 1980) and the passionate follow-up 'Actions, Attempts and Internal Events' (from Analysis 43, 1983), both published when he was still known as 'Mr. Smith', will have to hold on to their dusty journals and photocopies and hope that a retrospective box set awaits. Until then - or the next single - they must make do with this volume's liner notes which consist of the autobiographical 'Preface', the retrospective (but also introspective, and at times confessional) 'Introduction', and the anonymous 'Index', three minor pieces of work of which only the middle one stands out.

Let me now briefly introduce the seventeen pieces collected here, though I shall not be able to address them all properly. (Smith experts may wish to skip this section and move swiftly to my critical analysis of tracks 7-9, further below.)  Side A kick-starts with mid-late period 'Internal Reasons', inspired by the Bernard Williams' classic 'Internal and External Reasons'. This piece defends Williams' view that normative reasons are internal but replaces his relativist model of reasons with the non-relativist 'advice theory' (based on the notion of idealized desires) which fans will remember from The Moral Problem. It's a neat move, though it's exact value depends on whether the test of time will show Williams' original point to have been anything more than a glorified attempt to cash out the standard 'ought implies can' principle. Next up is the melancholic 'The Incoherence Argument', provoked by something Shafer-Landau once wrote. This blues finds Smith crying out with great conviction that his 1994 defense of the view that we are all motivated by our moral beliefs (on pain of being irrational) has been wronged and misunderstood. In 'Philosophy and Commonsense: The Case of Weakness of Will' and the nostalgic ballad 'Frog and Toad Lose Control'  Smith lightens the mood as he teams up with rising star Jeanette Kennett. Together they pledge that their version of internalism about normative reasons has the distinct advantage of being able to allow for weakness of will without entering into the counterintuitive kinds of elaborate technical maneuvers made by Davidson and his sort. By the end of the piece there is no doubt that they are clearly in control of their game. This sets the stage nicely for 'A Theory of Freedom and Responsibility', a thirty-page epic, in which Smith promises the reader that 'freedom is not a power of arbitrary significance', and the throwaway 'Rational Capacities' which sees Smith conjuring up possible worlds in which weak and reckless women fail to believe and desire correctly. All is not doom and gloom however as the possibility of such worlds implies that in the actual world these women have the capacity to get things right.

The last three numbers (7-9) in Side A form a glorious Humean Trilogy about belief and desire on which I wish to focus on in some detail, as its themes raise some interesting questions. In 'On Humeans, Anti-Humeans, and Motivation' Smith finds himself under the influence of Davidson, screaming out that motivating reasons really do consist of belief-desire pairs where these are further understood as psychological states. In the major tour de force 'The Possibility of Philosophy of Action' he persuades the reader that the availability of such a Humean story is presupposed by every commonsense explanation of action, and that this is so because intentional action is teleological in nature (Smith officially remains neutral on whether this pair causes the action). From this he infers that no matter how we choose to explain action, the agent's motivating reasons for action will always be those beliefs and desires of the agent in virtue of which all the explanations hold. 

Critic Jonathan Dancy has pointed out that this inference appears to have the counterintuitive consequence that we can never act for the reasons which tell us how we should act (I phrase the objection this way because Smith denies that all good reasons are normative reasons, which he understands as facts about what we would desire to do if we were fully rational, see essay 1 above). 'Indeed it seems to entail that our reasons for action are never the considerations upon which we act, for the latter are not psychological states (and are rarely even facts about them). Unphased by such thoughts, the Professor strikes back in his underrated 'Humeanism, Psychologism and the Normative Story' with the conviction that motivating reasons must (by definition, perhaps) be capable of explaining action, where this is further understood as explaining why (the event that was) the action in question occurred (see below). For while the considerations we act upon are capable of rendering our action intelligible (i.e. of  demonstrating why it might have occurred) it would seem that they cannot explain why it actually occurred. A more Humean way of putting this point is to say that while any number of facts can provide a possible explanation of action, these cannot alone determine what the actual explanation was. Suppose, for example, that Smith found an autographed copy of Bob Dylan's album 'Desire' and handed it in to the police because it is worth a lot of money. The fact that it has a high monetary value cannot alone explain the course of action of Smith's handing it in to the police, for the same fact is equally capable of rendering intelligible the course of action of his deciding to keep it. Unless we are given some information about his beliefs and desires (e.g. he want to get rich but believe that the safest way of doing this is to hand the album to the law and hopefully claim a reward), Smith would insist that the fact that the album was worth a lot of money (viz. the consideration Smith acted upon) cannot alone explain either (possible) action. He thus concludes that the possibility of action explanation presupposes the availability of a Humean, all-too-Humean story.

 If one assumes that the multiply ambiguous phase 'explaining an action' means (at least in this context) 'explaining why a course of action occurred' then the Humean suggestion would make very good sense (though this reviewer did wonder whether the Smith's explanantia of choice should not be facts about the agent's psychology, rather than her so-called psychological states). By contrast, on such an assumption Dancy's alternative would have the intolerable implication that the reasons for which we act do not explain why we act. However these suppositions all rest on a conflation between actions understood as things we do and actions understood as the events of our doing such things. Smith follows Davidson once again, this time in thinking that action explanation is be concerned with the occurrence of the event(s) while repeatedly alternating between talk of action being 'an event' and action being 'what an agent does whenever he acts' while taking. Yet the reasons for which we act are not reasons why (let alone for which) events occur. So it is possible to agree with Dancy about reasons for doing things and Smith about the explanation of the events of our doing things. The confusion was perhaps partly due to the very concept of a 'motivating reason' for action, which may well be incoherent: on the one hand, it is not events that are motivated but people, and we may further agree with Dancy that any kind of reason for action is not a reason for an event (or indeed a thing done) but a reason for which somebody acted. On the other hand, motivation appears to be a causal notion, and it seems equally (if not more) right to say that we are motivated by our beliefs and desires as it is to say that we are motivated by certain considerations.

Side B sets off with the populist 'Moral Realism', an instant classic which first appeared in the 2000 superstar compilation The Blackwell Guide to Moral Theory and  must not be confused with the similarly titled 'Realism' (written by Smith over a decade earlier for the equally superb Blackwell Companion to Ethics). While both pieces tackle the same theme, the later one enters into far more depth, attacking not just nihilism but also minimalism about Truth, as well as non-naturalism. So when Smith next asks 'Does the Evaluative Supervene on the Natural?', the reader can predict what answer he is going to give, though perhaps not the novel argument he here presents for it (in response to a new objection).

The same theme is touched upon again in track twelve - the funky 'Objectivity and Moral Experience', though this time Smith finds himself temporarily defending Mackie's error theory against a response by McDowell which he deems to be inadequate. 'In Defence of The Moral Problem', a minor-key attack on the press which does just what it says on the tin, is perhaps best understood if the reader has the original reviews by 'thin men' Brink, Copp, and Sayre-McCord at hand. Tracks fourteen and fifteen, the self-explanatory 'Exploring the Implications of the Dispositional Theory of Value' and the confessional 'Internalism's Wheel' both find the professor temporarily questioning his cognitive and motivation internalism before once more finding fleeting comfort in the tentative embrace of the dispositional theory, while idealized desire cognitivism is defended more rigorously in the fast-paced 'Evaluation, Uncertainty, and Motivation'. Finally, the volume ends with the title track 'Ethics and the a Priori: A Modern Parable', an upbeat piece containing an inspired dialogue between Cog and Noncog which puts two human faces (not unlike those of Michael Smith and fellow naturalist Simon Blackburn) to the main issues that have given the entire collection its lively tone and high-quality pitch, and ends on an amicable note.

So this is it, apologetic in places, thoughtful throughout, Ethics and the A Priori is a great tribute to Smith's consistent high standard, and will no doubt give both fans and critics alike much to think about. It is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in philosophical psychology and/or moral philosophy, and a great place to start if one is a newcomer to Smith's work. Unlike other artists (whose choruses are more memorable than their verses,) Smith proves to be a skilled master at his craft, as well as an excellent editor of his own work (the conceptual threads which run through the book do a wonderful job of helping the reader understand how Smith takes the main areas of his research to link up). Not even an expressivist will be able to say 'boo' to this volume.

© 2007 Constantine Sandis

Constantine Sandis, Ph.D., Oxford Brookes University


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