One of the modern works of philosophy that has influenced me the most is John Searle’s Rationality in Action — but probably not for the right reasons. I do not agree with all of Searle’s hypotheses (if they can even be referred to as such), but I do find the book incredibly thought-provoking. One of the reasons is that it reads like a novel. It’s a heck of a roller coaster where you find yourself nodding when reading one page, and vehemently shaking your head (or banging it into a wall) when reading the next.
When I first read the book almost 10 years ago, I used to make fun of it. One of Searle’s central theses is that there can be such a thing as desire-independent reasons for action, in contrast with what he terms the classical model. Take the following example. A man orders a beer, drinks the beer, and the bartender asks the customer to pay. According to Searle, I have no desire right there and then to pay for the beer; there is nothing in my motivational set that would give me a reason to pay for the beer. According to Searle, the reason for paying for the beer is not a desire to pay that I have right there and then, but a desire-independent reason that I created at the time of ordering the beer. I think the gut reaction to this argument for most readers, including myself, is that I do have a number of desire-dependent reasons to pay for the beer: I desire not to get punched by the bartender, forced to do the dishes, lose face in front of my drinking buds, be denied another beer and so forth. I feel really slow for not really realizing it until about the third time I read the book, but this is the wrong way to see it. Searle’s claim becomes more understandable if we look at it in terms of rational justification. Let’s say I order a beer, drinks it, and then the opportunity arise that I can get away with not paying for the beer at all. Surely, many would take the opportunity and not pay for the beer, but let us say that I decide to actually pay for the beer. After having settled the bill (and reminded the bartender that I owed him money), my drinking bud might ask me: “What the heck did you do that for?”. In that situation, it would be a perfectly rational thing to claim that “Well, because I ordered it and thereby promised to pay for it”. Searle’s point is not whether this is the reason why we usually pay (often we only pay because we don’t want to face the consequences of not paying), but that the desire-independent reason is a reason for action. It is perfectly rational (and incidentally, ethical) to act upon the reason that I created in the past even though I do not have any desire whatsoever to do so. In other words, if I had no desire to pay for the beer, no general moral desire to keep my promises or any other desire that could possibly motivate paying for the beer, it is still a perfectly rational thing for me to do if I decide to pay for the beer. Once I realized this subtlety, Searle’s book made a whole lot more sense and I highly recommend it — at least for its terminology and ability to provoke thoughts. To continue the novel analogy, Searle is both hero and anti-hero in this book. At some points you will think of him as a cranky, arrogant geezer, but at some points he’s the little child that points out the emperor’s lack of clothes.