Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Reasons and rationality

Here's a question for those of you who are up on the literature on reasons and rationality. I'm thinking of the stuff that takes account of Broome's work on normative requirements (here's a good starting place).

I don't like the view that there are reasons to be rational and especially dislike the view that rationality is a matter of correctly responding to reasons. Familiar territory, I don't want to cover it again. Let me ask a slightly different question. Can there be reasons which you can only respond to only by violating a normative requirement?

I happen to think not. (I also happen to think that in spite of their many differences, this isn't something that separates Broome from his opponents like Dreier.) I think there can't be reasons that can't figure in reasoning, and reasons whose demands can be met only by violating a normative requirement, are reasons that can't figure in reasoning unless the reasoner is less than minimally rational (i.e., the sort who we don't consider when we ask questions like 'Can anyone intend to drink the toxin?). It would be nice to have an argument for this view, one that goes beyond saying 'Well, reasons have to be the sort of thing that can figure in reasoning and reasons whose demands can be met only if you violate some normative requirement are not like that'.


boramlee said...

Can there be reasons which you can only respond to only by violating a normative requirement?

Not sure I am answering the question you intended... but my answer's Yes, when different forms of rationality come into conflict. E.g., pragmatic reasons for believing that P conflicting with epistemic reasons for believing not-P. In such a case, you respond to pragmatic reasons for belief only by violating the normative requirements associated with epistemic reasons, and vice versa.

Errol Lord said...

I don't think your question is disambiguated enough, but I take it your question is this: Can there be sufficient reasons that you can correctly respond to only by violating a normative requirement?

I think the answer is clearly No. The requirements of reason are coherent. So, if you correctly respond to the requirements of reason, then you will be coherent--i.e. you won't violate a normative requirement. Kolodny points this out a lot when he sets up his error theory for the normative requirements. See especially the more recent papers.

Errol Lord said...

I was thinking about this more, and I realized I should mention a particular part of Kolodny's work that he picks up from Bratman. In 'The Myth of Practical Consistency' he argues that one can have sufficient reason to have inconsistent intentions. As it turns out, Bratman pointed this out 20 years ago in Intentions, Plans, and Practical Reason. Of course, you could just take that as an argument that there is no normative requirement banning inconsistent intentions. Certainly defenders of the wide-scope view have thought there was such a requirement, though.

Clayton said...


It's an interesting suggestion, although I'm never quite sure that the different kinds of rationality come into conflict in the way they'd have to for there to be the sorts of reasons at issue. In particular, I'm not quite sure why we wouldn't say that practical reasons alleged to be practical reasons for belief are just really reasons for actions that have as causal consequences beliefs.

I sort of want the question a bit ambiguous, 'cause then I can get lots of good stuff instead of just a little good stuff, which is what you get when you ask clear, disambiguated questions.

The case of incompatible intentions is interesting. I'm not quite sure what to say about them. My initial reaction is to say that the normative requirements governing intention don't ban them--and not just for the trivial reason that there aren't wide-scope oughts of the sort there would have to be for there to be normative requirements. The Bratman examples are the example that (if I recall correctly) were supposed to cause trouble for the simple view of intentional action?

boramlee said...

...practical reasons alleged to be practical reasons for belief are just really reasons for actions that have as causal consequences beliefs.

Yeah, that's a neat and tempting line to take, though I'm not sure that things are so clear-cut, e.g., when it comes to pragmatic/epistemic virtues guiding theory choice.

But granting your distinction, I still think it very much possible that different kinds of practical considerations can come into conflict with one another, so that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't go with one kind of consideration. Think, e.g., of prudence coming into conflict with moral reasons (Sidgwick), or consequentialist reasoning vs. deontological reasoning, and so on. If one insists that in such cases there are all-things-rationally-considered-oughts, the onus is on him to show that there is a rational calculus or principle of rationality that can adjudicate conflicts between different kinds of reasons.