The Dualism of Practical Reason: Sidgwick

The Dualism of Practical Reason from “Some Fundamental Ethical Controversies” by Sidgwick 

Sometimes we are faced with decisions in which we must choose between our own good and the good of others.  Of course, there are happy situations where the two converge, but the difficult moral situations are those in which the two interests do not aligne, and a choice must be made.  It is in these types of situations where Sidgwick says we experience the dualism of practical reason.

What does the dualism of practical reason mean?  To figure this out lets take the concepts in isolation.  Practical reason is the type of reasoning we use to decide what to do.  For (a very simple) example, if I’m hungry, my practical reason tells me I should make a “samich” rather than drink wine.  Or if I want to graduate, practical reason tells me I need to write my papers at night rather than go out drinking.  We also employ practical reasoning in more complex situations that involve values.  Suppose I value virtue (whatever that is).  Practical reason is what I employ to decide which actions will bring about virtue. Essentially, practical reason is what we use to determine how we should go about achieving some end–usually normative.  

Dualism, in this context, refers to the idea that our practical reason is divided between two sometimes conflicting ends.  These two ends are the good of other and our own good.  For Sidgwick the goal of seeking our own good/happiness is just as reasonable as seeking the good/happiness of others.  Because both goals are reasonable, in situations where these goals conflict, our practical intuition will be split.  That is, our practical reason will be in a stalemate with itself and so cannot be used to determine what to do.  In such cases, what we do will be a function of the relative strength of non-rational impulses.  In other words, what we decide to do will be determined by whatever desire is strongest, not what is rational.

For most of moral philosophy prior to Sidgwick moral theorists thought two things: (a) morality is rational and (b) what is right and good for the individual to do will converge with what is right and good for society.  Despite his desire that both be so, Sidgwick concludes that they can’t both be true because of the dualism of practical reason.  Lets look at that in a little more detail…

The Dualism of Practical Reason:  The Problem of Rational Egoism
For many traditional moral theorists, it is a “dictate of reason” to prefer the general good to that of yourself.  That is, in cases where you stand to benefit at the expense of others, to do so would be immoral and irrational (because morality and reason are intertwined).

The problem is that some people might refuse to acknowledge the reasonableness of this principle.  A person might say that it is more or equally rational to prefer my own good as the end of my actions.  So, the only way such a person could act for the general good (in cases of conflict) is to act irrationally.   

It seems, that if we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that reason “assigns a different end to the individual and to the [group].”  That is, it is just as reasonable to sacrifice one’s own happiness to the group as it is to prefer one’s own happiness to the group’s.  If we want to maintain that morality is rational, that is, we can determine what to do in moral situations by appeal to our practical reason, we will find that what we ought to do sometimes conflicts.

Internalism vs Externalism
So, there are a couple of philosophical things going on here which has to do with what is called “internalism” and “externalism”.  I wrote a post last year on this topic (see the Williams article) if you want more depth, but I’ll quickly sketch it out here.  The issue is about what constitutes a reasonable end.

So far we’ve just said that both preference of one’s own happiness (because it is important to you) and preference of the general good are both reasonable ends for our practical reason to realize.  But are they equally reasonable?

An internalist says that the reasonableness of an end of action is determined, well…internally.  That is, if I think that my well-being is more important to me than the general well-being, then that’s good enough for it to constitute a reasonable reason for my action.  My subjective desires and beliefs about what’s important determine what’s reasonable for me to do.  You can’t tell me “no, you are mistaken that your personal well-being is important to you”.  How could I be mistaken about what is important to me?  That doesn’t seem to make any sense.  So, so long as we say it is rational for an individual to pursue what is important to that particular individual, then actions toward those goals will be rational.

The externalist says, ho..ho..ho..hold on a second!  Not all reasons (i.e., ends) for action are reasonable, and furthermore reasons aren’t merely internal desires for things.  Reasons stand outside of us.  Ok, yes x, y, z is important you but that doesn’t make it objectively important or an objective reason for action.   There are reasons for action that everybody would agree are reasonable.  For example (from Parfit), if you are in a burning building and you can safely leave, you have a good reason to leave.  Everyone would agree to the reasonableness of your not wanting to get burned to deph.  You have a reason (in the external sense) to x-scape from the burning building.

So, the externalist says that there are different degrees of reasonableness ranging from the subjective to the objective.  Rationality is acting on the reasons to which everyone would subscribe.   Everybody has a reason to care about the general well-being (because they are a part of it) but only you (and maybe your momma) care about your particular well-being above the general well being.  Acting on objective reasons over subjective (ie. internal) reasons is a more rational thing to do.  Since (if!) morality is rational, then we should prefer the general good over our own in cases where they conflict.  Or at least in cases where I benefit at the expense of er’body elks.

Internalists deny the existence of external reasons, they say all reasons are internal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people only have selfish motives for action.  Some people might, as part of their psychology prefer the good of others to their own.  So, their reason for acting benevolently will arise from wanting to see this preference realized.  Internalism doesn’t condemn us to crass egoism.  People’s actions will simply be a function of their internal preferences.  We just have hope that most desire the good of others!

Dualism of Practical Reason 2
There is another moral theory that demonstrates the split of our practical reason.  In Kant’s moral philosophy we are always to act accordian to reason because it is supposed that reason alignes perfectly with the good.  That is, the right and the good perfectly overlap.

For Kant, the right is a matter of following absolute (rational) moral principles.  The problem is, it doesn’t take much imagination to come up with situations where following the moral principles would cause us to act in a way we’d call–by any reasonable sense–immoral.  

The standard example is that of lying.  Kant says we should never lie.  Well, what about if I’m in WW2 Germany and I’m hiding Jews (down the well) and a gestapo agent asks me if I’m hiding any Jews down the well?  Our moral sensibilities seem to tell us that in such cases the moral position is to lie.

Sidgwick’s point is this: even supposing we could rationally intuit or deduce a set of moral principles, there will inevitably be situations where these principles conflict and we will have to chose one over the other.  So, our practical reason will be split.  Furthermore, in such cases we need an “master” principle of morality.  One that tells us how to order the other principles when they conflict.

So, lets grant that Kant came up with the set of rational principles.  In situations where following them would seem to be causing great harm, it appears that our practical reason will be split.  Do we follow the rules just for the sake of following the rules or do we abide by another rule that says we should minimize general harm and maximize general happiness? 

 Only the most martinet of people follow rules “because that’s the rule and following rules is what is good”.  Most reasonable people acknowledge that when rules–no matter how rational–cause more harm then good, we should at least consider the principle of harm/utility.  So, even if we have a system of rational rules, our reason will still be split; that is, there will still be a dualism of practical reason. 

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