Sunday, June 15, 2008

Reasons and relations

Are practical reasons reasons only for potential actions?

It seems to me that they are not. Here's the basic strategy for arguing 'no'. Actions are coarse-grained items and each token action will be an instance of many different types. Considerations can constitute reasons by standing in the favoring relation and that relation is to something more fine-grained than token actions. So, reasons can constitute reasons without standing in relation to a potential action.

Here's what I've written up this morning. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated unless they show that I'm mistaken. Such thoughts will be a cause for regret and maybe resentment. Enjoy:

Suppose actions are coarse-grained items that are tokens of a variety of act-types. On this picture, Jones’ returning Smith’s book might be Jones’ keeping a promise to a friend, disappointing his sister who had hoped to read the book by the pool, and his burning fossil fuels as he drives to Smith’s apartment on the far side of town. On the view that reasons are favorers, that his returning the book would enable him to keep his promise is a reason because it makes the action favorable. On the view that reasons are reasons for potential actions only, since there is no potential action of Jones’ that is his returning the book that is not his returning the book while disappointing his sister and burning fossil fuels, the consideration that speaks in favor of returning the book can do so only if it speaks in favor of his disappointing his sister and burning fossil fuels. However, as there seems to be nothing in the circumstance that speaks in favor of disappointing his sister and burning fossil fuels, the view that treats reasons as reasons for potential actions only has to choose between saying that there really is no reason to return the book or some reason to disappoint Jones’ sister and burn fossil fuels. There seems to be no contradiction in saying ‘Look, there was no reason to disappoint my sister like that, but it was unavoidable since I had to return Smith’s book’. While this claim seems perfectly sensible, the claim expresses a conceptual falsehood if reasons are only reasons to the extent that they serve as reasons the actions the agent has the potential to perform. On the view on which practical reasons are reasons only for bringing about something more fine-grained than the coarse-grained action that instances many act-types such as the aspects of the action the agent takes to favor performing an action that will instance that type, a reason can stand in the favoring relation without thereby favoring bringing about all that must in order to perform an act of a given type. Jones’ reason is a reason to do something to return the book rather than a reason to do all that is entailed by his returning the book.

If we say that practical reasons stand in relation to something more fine-grained than potential actions such as favoring a type that the action is an instance of, we will do a better job explaining two features of our practical situation. First, think about the phenomenon of rational regret. An agent might rationally regret that she did not Φ knowing that she ought all things considered to have Ψ’d and knowing that she could not both Φ and Ψ. The natural explanation as to why an agent might rationally regret that she did not perform an action she knows she ought not to have performed is that there was something lacking from her Ψ-ing that spoke in favor of her Φ-ing. If that consideration that spoke in favor of her Φ-ing gave her no reason to act at all, her regret is hard to make sense of. On the view that reasons are reasons only for potential actions, given that she knows that she could not have Φ’d without thereby doing what she ought all things considered not have done, she could only judge that there was reason for her to Φ in those circumstances if there was reason to do what she should not all things considered do. But, then she should not regret that she could not have acted on that reason.

Second, the view seems better placed to make sense of the observation that practical deliberation is non-monotonic. As noted by Kenny, a piece of practical reasoning that proceeds from a set of premises to a conclusion might be perfectly acceptable even if that reasoning would not have been acceptable if additional premises were added. Suppose Jones were to reason initially ‘If I head to Smith’s this afternoon, I could return his book and keep my promise, so this is what I shall do’, but then realizes that in putting this plan into action he would thereby disappoint his sister and that the disappointment would be so great that he thinks it might be best just to return the book a few days later than promised. (Assume that she really wants to read the book and Smith will not be terribly upset by Jones’ failure to keep his promise.) If there was nothing wrong with the initial inference, but there would be something wrong with Jones’ inferring that he should return the book in light of both facts, practical reasoning is non-monotonic. If reasons only stood in relation to potential actions, it is difficult to see how this case could illustrate the non-monotonicity of practical reasoning. In remembering that his keeping the promise in the way he is contemplating doing would be a way of doing what he should not do all things considered. Either that his action would fulfill his promise would speak in favor of disappointing his sister terribly or Jones has just discovered a further fact in light of which the fact that his action would be a way of fulfilling his promise should not have figured in deliberation as a consideration that spoke in favor of returning the book. As the fact that the action would keep the promise does not speak in favor of disappointing his sister, we would have to say that Jones’ was initially unaware of a fact in light of which the consideration he took to favor returning the book was no reason at all. With no reason favoring the initial decision to return the book, we have no case illustrating that reasoning from a reason might be acceptable even if reasoning from that reason along with others to the same conclusion unacceptable. If, as seems to be the case, there are two features of our practical situation that seem to make sense only if reasons stand in relation to features of actions we contemplate performing rather than potential actions.

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