Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Are favorers reasons?

I've been toying with a little argument that is supposed to show that normative or guiding reasons require more of us than just that we rationally pursue certain ends or form beliefs. Here it is.

Consider the view that reasons are at least sometimes considerations that favor an action. If asked why we ought to think of reasons as considerations that favor an action, I hope this answer suffices. Reasons are things that figure in reasoning. When I engage in the sort of practical reasoning that has as its upshot an action (or intention to act or believe that I ought to act), the reason certain considerations figure in deliberation and decision making is precisely because they favor the course of action I am contemplating. Considerations that seem to neither favor that action nor favor any alternative simply drop out of the deliberative process. It seems that as a rational agent, I have sufficient expertise to know how to use reasons and to know what it takes for something to be a reason and this pretty much sums up how I sometimes use reasons and sometimes know reasons to be reasons when I see them. It could be that I’m mistaken, but it seems we need really good reasons to think that reasons are not considerations that have ever figured in my reasoning despite the fact that I’m a fully rational agent whose actions are sometimes no less than fully reasonable. It seems we need good reasons to think that while reasons operate as my reasons for an action by favoring some course of action, they work as reasons behind the scenes in some totally different way that does not require favoring. It seems that while I might make occasional mistakes about what I ought to do, what the reasons require of me, and what reasons there are, I am not completely hopeless when it comes to determining how things would have to be for my actions to turn out to be correct, for the best, or right. And, with only this much established, I think we can see why reasons’ demands outstrip the requirements of rationality.

(1) For many of the actions we consider performing, the considerations that speak in favor of their performance are facts about our situations represented by the beliefs that figure in deliberation rather than facts about our minds or states of our minds.
(2) It is possible to be fully rational in deciding to Φ even on those occasions where each of the beliefs that figure in the deliberative processes that leads to the decision to Φ is false.
(3) On these occasions, however, we often do not correctly respond to the considerations we would identify as those that make Φ-ing favorable.
(4) Thus, on these occasions if doing what the reasons required only required responding in ways properly described as being rational, we would be systematically wrong about what reasons are or how they ought to be used.
(5) However, it is implausible to charge us with such error.
(6) Hence, these are occasions where we might act rationally without thereby doing as the reasons required.

The case for (1) is straightforward. If you think about the considerations that favor offering assistance to another, it seems it is not the belief that they need your help that generates the reason to help or serves as that reason’s ground but the fact that they need your assistance that generates the reason or serves as its ground.

The case for (2) is straightforward. Those who hold that judgments about the rationality of a decision ought to take account of the agent’s perspective will say that the fact that the subject’s perspective is not faithful to how things truly are is a fact wholly obscure to the subject. Such facts cannot undermine the claim that the subject’s decisions are rational.

As for (3), the idea is something like this. While believing that someone needs help, we might face a situation where the facts suggest that not only is there nothing that speaks in favor of offering help, there are good reasons to refrain from offering this person help (e.g., they wish to be left alone, offering help would only be patronizing, etc…). So, while one might be no less than fully reasonable in offering help believing that such an offer is called for and being moved by perfectly moral motives, there might literally be nothing that favored the decision to make such an offer. And it is at this point where the problem arises. The justification for (1) stems from two observations. The first is simply that we ordinarily judge that the considerations that really favor actions pertain to the situation outside us rather than states of our own mind. The second is that the considerations that figure in reasoning do so precisely because the agent takes them to be considerations that favor a potential course of action. If we insist that because the decision to offer help was rational the decision to offer help was a decision there really was reason to make or the thing that there was overall reason to do, either the subject is just mistaken in thinking that what determines whether something spoke in favor of the decision to offer help are facts about the potential beneficiary and her needs or mistaken in thinking that in determining whether considerations ought to play the role of operative reasons it is sometimes crucial to ask whether those considerations favor the action they eventually lead us to perform. If you opt for the former, you charge ordinary subjects with serious error. They thought that the duty to render aid was about someone else, it really is all about them. If you opt for the latter, you charge ordinary subjects with serious error. They thought that what is determinative for making a reason a reason is that it stands in the sorts of relations such as favoring that they themselves would have thought were necessary for reasons to be reasons for the kinds of actions they seem to be reasons for.

So, whereas it seems that practical reasons are at least sometimes facts about the external situation rather than facts about us, adherence to the view that meeting the demands reasons make is merely a matter of seeing to it that one’s actions and attitudes are rational forces us to say that they are never external considerations. Here is why. In the case where the subject is systematically deluded about the nature of the external situation, the subject’s rationally responding by coming to a decision is not a response that takes account of how things are but only account of how things seem. So, on some such occasions at least the only things we could think of as things that make demands on the agent are facts about the agent’s own mind. Now, suppose we move from the ‘bad’ case to the ‘good’. We think that in doing so, the subject is no more rational or reasonable as a result. If we said that in such situations the facts believed and the beliefs themselves each provided their own reasons, we would have to think of the subject’s response as fully rational only insofar as the subject successfully did what both sets of reasons demanded. If the subject were to do that, we would intuitively think of the subject’s response as a double success, but this seems to be an odd sort of double counting. Surely there were not two things going for the subject’s decision to Φ in the good case if there could be only one thing going for that decision in the bad case. So, it seems to follow that good or bad, a subject’s reasons involve no more than their mental states or facts about such states. And that forces us to charge ordinary subjects with systematic error, something we have no good reason to do.


John Turri said...


You wrote:

"When I engage in the sort of practical reasoning that has as its upshot an action (or intention to act or believe that I ought to act), the reason certain considerations figure in deliberation and decision making is precisely because they favor the course of action I am contemplating. Considerations that seem to neither favor that action nor favor any alternative simply drop out of the deliberative process."

It doesn't sound like considerations figure in deliberation "precisely because they favor" some course of action. Rather, as you indicate in the second sentence of the quote, it appears that their seeming to you to favor (or, as it were, not favor) some action primarily explains why they figure into your deliberations.

Clayton said...

Yes, I think that's right. But, the crucial idea is that R is treated as a reason to A precisely because the subject takes R to count in favor of A-ing and what the agent takes to stand in this favoring relation is not a psychological state.

Moreover, the subject would be disposed to deny that a reason R would be a reason if it did not actually favor A-ing but only seemed to do so. Now, the reason I think _this_ matters is that it causes trouble for the idea that reasons must be epistemically accessible to get their work done (i.e., by bearing on whether the agent ought to A or do something else entirely). I'll likely do a post on the tension between access principles and the principle of agential prerogative.

John Turri said...

But there's a big difference, though, between being treated as a reason and being a reason, right? How do you get from the one to the other?

And I think people take their own (not to mention others') psychological states to be "favorers" all the time. In response to the question 'Why did you do that?' people will often say things like 'Because I wanted to' or 'Because I like it' or some such. Likewise, in response to the question 'Why do you believe justice will be done?', you'll hear people say things like 'Because I believe that a good god exists' or 'I just have a feeling', etc.