Some people think that seeing that action x is right is ipso facto motivation to do x. Of course there are caveats needed. The motivation may be overridden by other things. If you’re depressed, or otherwise practically irrational, there might be moral opinions without motivation. And really the picture is more plausible in the negative case – seeing that something is bad is motivation not to do it. It’s kinda rare I think that there’s exactly one right thing to do, so the motivational force of seeing that some action is among the morally good actions is not that motivating. Seeing that something you’d otherwise be motivated to do is immoral, however, might have more motivational force.
Even with all the caveats, the idea that there is an internal connection between moral opinions and motivation is contentious. But I want to (for now) take that internal connection for granted and see how far we can extend it. In particular, I’m interested in the following question: for which positive evaluative features is there an internal connection between seeing something has the feature and being motivated a certain way?
Modulo some worries about just what doxastic action amounts to, epistemic properties seem to produce clear cases of this. There is an internal connection (modulo kinds of irrationality) between seeing that it would be irrational to believe p and being motivated to not believe p. One doesn’t have to be independently motivated to be epistemically rational in order to be moved away from belief that p by seeing that belief that p in your situation would be irrational. Rather, it’s constitutive of rationality that to believe that believing p is irrational provides motivating reason to not believe p. So this is a nice paradigm of the kind of internal connection we’re talking about.
What, then, about the broadly aesthetic virtues? In particular, is it the case that seeing that it would be funny to phi is in itself motivation to phi for the practically rational? Certainly seeing that it would be funny to phi is often correlated with motivation to phi in practically rational people. But perhaps this is because those people have a standing desire to do what is funny, and it is this desire, coupled with the belief that it would be funny to phi, that produces the motivation.
(At least I think there’s a correlation here. Daniel Nolan suggested that really what happens is that seeing it would be funny to phi leads (perhaps internally) to being motivated to get someone else to phi. I think we need a large research grant to check just what the facts are here.)
I’ve been asking a few people about this over recent weeks, and the (tounge-in-cheek?) answer is normally that there is an internal connection. But it would be nice to have arguments to this effect, or to the opposite effect. Taking the arguments from the moral case and changing a few words has all the advantages of theft over honest toil, so let’s try that.
Michael Smith (well really Michael Smith’s counterpart in meta-aesthetics, but it’s funnier in the untrue version) argues that if we don’t posit an internal connection, then we’ll have to say that genuinely funny people are humour fetishists. They just do funny things because they have a de dicto desire to do what is funny. But that’s implausible, because truly funny people are at most motivated by a de re desire to do what is funny. That is, they are motivated to do each funny thing that becomes available, not to do the humourous whatever that turns out to be.
For the other side, David Brink (again really his counterpart Brink*) brings up the case of the ahumourist, the person who sees that certain actions are funny but simply doesn’t feel any motivational force towards doing them. This is not because she is depressed, or practically irrational, she just isn’t moved by comedic considerations. The standard response to Brink*, which seems right to me, is that the ahumourist doesn’t really see that actions are funny, but merely that they satisfy “funny”.
There’s a danger this post is outstaying its welcome, so let me just note the three ideas I had for how to make a paper out of this question.
First, I could do what I’ve been doing so far and see how the arguments from the moral internalism/externalism debate work when transposed into the key of funny. The motivation wouldn’t be to understand humour, but to get a better insight into the workings (and strengths) of those arguments.
Second, I could do just that but really with the intent of working out whether internalism about the comedic (or the beautiful) is plausible. That seems like an interesting question to me, though perhaps not to anyone else. (There’s a certain conception of philosophy on which meta-aesthetics is absolutely central, since it requires discussion of normativity, intentionality and modality, the three central issues in philosophy. The fact that there aren’t many meta-aestheticians in top philosophy programs does undermine this conception of philosophy just a little bit.)
Third, I could try writing up the internalism/externalism about the comedic debate just for laughs. When I started thinking about this that was certainly the plan, though I’m now thinking the question deserves a little more serious thought than that.
(Thanks to Daniel Nolan and Ralph Wedgwood for helpful suggestions about this, neither of whom should be held responsible for the resulting insane proposals.)
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized