Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reasons and Time-Lags

Suppose you see your neighbor digging in his yard at night. You see that he's burying coffee cans. Why? You find out that he's stuffing the cans with cash. He figures that if the cash is buried in the yard, he won't be tempted to fritter it away and that way he will have money when he retires. So, it seems we might say that he did have a reason to bury those cans:

(1) His reason for digging in the garden to bury those cans is that he will have money in his retirement by so doing.

Suppose that someone's reason for A-ing can be either a fact about the future or some state of affairs that has not yet come to be as suggested by (1). Suppose that reasons explanations are factive. If we further insist that normative reasons have to be the sorts of things that could also be a motivating reason, it seems that there's a problem for views that identify motivating reasons with causal antecedents of actions. The problem is that there's a time-lag between the things that can give a causal explanation of the digging and the thing that could turn out to be identical to what (1) suggests is the thing that counts in favor of the digging. I don't know if anyone defends a combination of views that this would cause trouble for, but I thought it was interesting.


Pavel Davydov said...


To be honest, I think that in order for (1) to make trouble for those who hold the combination of views you describe, other things must be added to this combination. For instance, one (not implausible, I take it) way of reading (1) is as:

(1*) His reason for digging in the garden to bury those cans [at time t] is that [his situation at time t- is (or was) such that] he will have money in his retirement [at time t+] by so doing.

If we admit forward- and backward-looking tensed facts concerning relations between times, such as the one (1*) suggests, then it is still open to the people who hold the combination of views you describe to say that the reason, though it involves a forward-looking fact, nevertheless antedates the action, and so doesn't conflict with the view.

Clayton said...


Thanks for the comment, I'll need to think about your suggestion. If I'm reading you correctly, you're suggesting that someone could identify the fact that explains the action in (1) and (1*) as something like this:

The fact that was the agent's reason was a fact about his situation prior to t that entails, inter alia, that at t+ various states of affairs would obtain.

If I'm reading you right, we could try to focus on situations where there's no deterministic connection between the situations that were prior to or concurrent with the agent's actions and the later states of affairs that (1) cites as the agent's reason. The repair might be that (1) could be true even if (!*) isn't.

Pavel Davydov said...


Two things. First, the original (1) can be read as containing a DESCRIPTION of the reason-grounding fact (which could be, for instance, too complex to describe definitely in past- or present-tense form).

Second, depending on (once more) the rest of one's views on how reasons work, it may not necessarily be right to require that the facts about the situation at t ENTAIL the facts about the situation at t+. Nor does the connection need to be deterministic. Perhaps all one needs is that the situation at t raise the probability of the situation at t+ being a certain way, AND that it be true at t that the situation at t+ will be a certain way.

Even weaker, the digging could be required for having money in retirement, and the latter be merely possible. (This way, we can aviod explicitly mentioning probabilities.)