Why do people obey to commands? Because they are immediately inclined, in a behaviourist way, to obey? Or because they realise that the action commanded is an instrument to the realisation of a coveted goal? Or are there further explanations?
This question has been debated at length in Sanskrit philosophy, oscillating especially among three main positions. I discussed these positions with some accuracy in previous posts, but this time I would like to try a bird-eye view about what is at stake.
On the one side, Maṇḍana claimed that the only motivator for undertaking actions is the awareness of the fact that the action to be undertaken is the means to obtain a desired goal. On the other, Prabhākara’s followers claimed that we immediately obey to commands because we feel enjoined, and only later analyse what is being asked and why. The role of the mention of the listener’s desire in commands such as “If you want to lose weight, try this shake!” is not meant to say that the enjoined action is an instrument to realise the desired output. Rather, the mention of the desire is meant for the listener to understand that they are the person addressed by the prescription. It picks up the person, who immediately relates with their own desires, but does not describe the existence of an instrumental relation between enjoined action and result. The last position can be connected to Bhartṛhari’s pratibhā theory. As depicted by Maṇḍana, this is a general theory about meaning, which includes both commands and descriptive sentence. According to it, human as well as non-human animals have innate inclinations which make it possible for them to perform activities they could have never learnt but are still able to perform, such as swimming or breastfeeding in the case of a baby. The pratibhā theory can be extended to commands which one would respond to because of an innate inclination.
Maṇḍana’s theory has the clear advantage of being a reductionist theory. By following it, one does no longer need an ad hoc semantic theory for commands, which can be reduced to descriptive sentences explaining the relation between the action enjoined and the expected output. Similarly, Maṇḍana provides a single theory covering all aspects of motivation to act, both in the case of commands and in the case of autonomous undertakings of action. In all cases, one is motivated to act because one thinks that the action is the instrument to get to the expected result. What are the disadvantages of this theory? First of all, Prābhākaras have a point when they describe our first response to commands. We immediately feel enjoined even before starting to analyse the action we have been required to perform. Secondly, Maṇḍana’s theory might have problems when it comes to people who know what would be best for them, but still don’t act. Can this all be explained just in terms of desires and instruments?
As declared at the beginning, the above is my attempt to give a short overview of the debate. Comments are welcome!