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Most writers think that there are two fundamentally different concepts of reasons, though some maintain that there is only one concept and the appearance of duality is misleading, and is due to a failure to properly analyse the role of reasons in our thought. Among those who accept the duality thesis, there are disagreement about the nature and relations between the concepts. It is not always easy to tell where terminological differences end and substantive ones begin.

I am posting a link to a draft paper, available in PDF format, in which I defend the duality view against some criticism, and offer an explanation of the relations between normative and explanatory reasons, which is basically a development of Bernard Williams’s ideas.
The paper is here. Comments welcome.


  1. 1. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | October 14, 2007 4:01 pm

    Joseph, thanks a lot for your very interesting paper! I have a few clarificatory questions.

    On pp. 11-12, you discuss Broome’s claim that normative reasons merely contribute to the explanation of ought-propositions. You argue that this is not all that they do. One example you give is the case of akrasia. You said,

    “In the case of akrasia people act for what they believe to be the lesser reason. For akrasia to be possible it must be possible that they are right in that belief. So imagine cases in which they are right. I knowingly act for a lesser reason. I am not acting as I ought to act, and I know it. But I am acting for a (genuine) reason. It is merely one which, as I am aware is defeated in the circumstances. The reason for which I act is a normative reason, and it explains my action. . . . This shows that, even though normative reasons may contribute to the explanation of some true ought-propositions, their relevance in cases of akrasia goes beyond any such contribution” (pp. 11-12)

    I’m wondering whether this is an accurate description of akrasia. Couldn’t it be said that in akrasia, the reasons for which people act are not “lesser reasons”; instead, they are not reasons at all? For example, suppose I promised Sam that I would meet him at 3pm for a cup of coffee. At 2:45pm, I just can’t be bothered to get out off the couch, owing to akrasia. It seems that I do not have a “lesser reason” to stay on the couch, or that I’m acting for the reason of staying on the couch. Instead, it seems more accurate to say that I’m not acting for any reason at all. Indeed, suppose I fell off the couch, owing to akrasia, I may not even bother to get back into the couch. If so, this would seem suggest that ‘staying on the couch’ is not a reason for my action. On the other hand, if I did have a “lesser” reason, e.g., I want to stay home to watch the football game on TV. Then I may be failing to keep my promise to Sam. But could I be said to be akratic? If all this is right, this seems to call into question your claim that in akrasia, “I am acting for a (genuine) reason” — and a ‘normative’ reason, no less.

    The second example you give is drawn from a case recognised by Broome:

    “[Broome] mentions that sometimes it is not the case that one ought to Φ, nor is it the case that one ought not to Φ. As he says such cases may belong to different subcategories (38-9). In some there are no normative reasons either for or against Φ-ing. In others there are reasons pro and con Φ-ing which do not defeat one another” (p. 12)

    To this case, you say

    “Now here the existence of normative reasons is essential to elucidate the difference between these two types of cases, though there is no difference between them regarding which ought-propositions apply to them. Again, we see that normative reasons do more than explain ought-propositions” (p. 12)

    Could you elaborate on how “the existence of normative reasons is essential to elucidate the difference between these two types of cases,” and where the kind of the elucidation normative reasons provide here is not just explanation of a special kind of facts?

  2. 2. Posted by Joseph Raz | October 14, 2007 6:00 pm

    Thanks, Matthew. Let me see whether the following will help regarding weakness of the will. [I do not think I can do much the clarify the second example. It is Broome who distinguishes between the two sub-categories by the presence of reasons in the one and their absence in the other. I merely pointed out that fact, and accepted, as I do, that the two cases are different even though they do not differ in the way they sustain any ought-fact.] So to weakness of the will:
    Your observation raises two issues:
    1) Is it ever the case that when one’s action is weak-willed one acts, as one believes, for the lesser reason?
    2) Is it always so in cases of weakness of the will? Are all of them instances of acting for what one takes to be the lesser reason?
    I think that the answer to the first question is Yes (and that is all that is needed to make my point against Broome). Suppose I have reason to give a tutorial at 10 a.m., as I scheduled one for that time, but that on the way to my office I witness an accident and lend a hand to the rescue operation, inevitably, and predictably, missing the tutorial. I am not, of course, acting against my better judgement. On the contrary, aware of the conflicting reasons I judge correctly that I should help with the rescue. But I fail to act on a good reason which applied to me (the reason I had to give the tutorial at that time, i.e. that I undertook to do so). As a result I owe it to my students to explain why I failed to turn up, and to arrange an alternative time to suit their convenience, and do whatever else may be necessary to compensate for, or alleviate any inconvenience I caused them. So the reason I did not act for was a good reason (even though it was the lesser reason).
    Now suppose the same scenario, except that this time even though I believe that all things considered I should help with the rescue I do not, and I give my tutorial instead. (we can imagine various psychological stories about why I do so). Given that the reasons I face are the same as in the first scenario, and given that in it I had a reason (which I did not follow) to give a tutorial at 10 a.m., I see no way to deny either that I have that very same reason now, or that when I give the tutorial I act for that reason (which is, per hypothesis, what I take myself to be doing).
    That concludes the answer to the first question, and – as I already mentioned – this is all I rely on in the use of akrasia against Broome’s position.
    Things are murkier regarding the second question. First, one can be, it would seem, acting akratically while acting on an undefeated reason, so long as one believes that it is the lesser reason. More interesting is the question whether one can be weak-willed without acting for any reason? Perhaps one can fail to do what one believes oneself to have a conclusive reason to do without doing anything else. One may linger in bed rather than go to work, etc. Of course, in such cases one is omitting to do what one believes oneself to have a conclusive reason to do, but one need not have a reason for the omission. One may just not feel like doing what one thinks one has conclusive reason to do.
    Is this a case of weakness of the will without acting for what one takes to be a lesser reason? And if so, are there no actions (rather than omissions) which display the same features?
    [If weakness of the will is a matter of acting against one’s better judgement then this is not weakness of the will for one does not act. But if in the case of such omissions the agent fails in the same way in which he does when acting akratically, then it seems sensible to count such omissions as cases of weakness of the will.]
    So how are we to think of such omissions? Let me start with the second question: If, you may ask, one may omit to act for no reason why can one not also act for no reason? And of course one can act without acting for a reason. When one is doing something accidentally, by mistake or involuntarily one is not doing so for a reason. The problem is that such actions cannot be akratic. Only what one does intentionally can be akratc, and actions with intentions are actions for reasons.
    Now, however, we need to return to the malingerer, who fails to go to work. Is his omission accidental, or involuntary, or caused by a mistake? If it were then it would not be akratic. If he is genuinely unaware of the time, or think that it is a holiday, etc. He is not weak-willed. to be that He needs to intentionally omit to turn up for work. But then he must have a reason for that (he is too tired, to avoid his boss who will reprimand him for his mistake the day before, etc.). So while he does not have a reason for any alternative action, he has a reason, which he himself judges to be a lesser reasons) to omit doing what he believes he has conclusive reason to do. So I think that the answer to my second question too is affirmative.

    So much for the clarifications you challenged me to give. I was wondering whether it was just accidental that they involved points advanced against Broome’s position. Perhaps you thought that they were the only arguments I had in the paper against Brooome, on this issue. If so then let me point out that that is not the case. The explanation of ought-propositions, and some of the other constructive suggestions I made also militates against his view

  3. 3. Posted by Guy Kahane | October 17, 2007 3:55 pm

    About the weakness of the will example. As you say, it’s hard to deny that at least in some such cases, one’s act conforms to a genuine reason one has. You add that it’s also hard to deny that one is acting FOR that reason, or, which is what you need for this argument against Broome, that the reason itself explains the action. I agree that it’s hard to deny this, but let me try to explore how Broome might try to.

    Broome presumably allows not only that facts about reasons explain facts about oughts, but also that BELIEFS about reasons explain BELIEFS about oughts (after all either kind of belief might be false). And it is no counterexample to his claim if beliefs about reasons also explained some actions. Now if one accepts, as you do, that reasons themselves can be explanations of (some) actions, explanations superior to explanations that merely cite belief, then it would be hard to block the move to your further claim. I don’t know if Broome accept such explanations. I’ll say a few words about them below. Still, suppose we accept that there are such explanations. Couldn’t we deny that in cases of weakness, the reason itself plays an explanatory role? We could still accept that it explains the belief. We would only deny that in this case, it also explains the action. My own linguistic intuitions are not clear about this. But I wonder whether your ‘guidance’ condition is properly met in such cases. Of course, one is not acting blindly or accidentally in line with the reason. But the belief has a kind of compulsive force. Perhaps this is an opening for those who want to decouple explanations in terms of beliefs in reasons from explanations in terms of reasons proper.

    Another tack might be to claim that in weakness cases beliefs about reasons (and thus reasons) explain, not simply action, but appearances of oughts (this of course would already be a concession by Broome, but it preserves something of his view.) Weak evidence for this claim might be that in weak acts one would often not be responding simply to a particular reason but to complex combinations of reasons, combinations which, absent some opposing reason(s), WOULD issue in an ought. (One rarely simply responds to the reason to, say, give a tutorial–one is more likely to stay and help if e.g. the tutorial is expected to be extremely boring.)

    About the explanation of action by reasons rather than merely by beliefs about such reasons. Two small points: (1) On one natural interpretation, this seems to commit us to the causal efficacy of normative facts, facts about reasons (as opposed to that of facts which also happen to be reasons). Many feel uncomfortable about such a commitment (a discomfort expressed, I think, in one of the passages you quote from Williams). Does everyday talk about reasons really commit us to such a controverisal meta-ethical claim? I’m inclined to think it does, but many deny this. (Of course one might accept your claim but deny it commits us to this natural intepretation.) (2) I’m far from being an expressivist, but an expressivist might take the following line. He would admit that we find explanations in terms of reasons more satisfying than explanations in terms of beliefs about reasons. But he might claim that this is not because these are better explanations of the act, but because they provide our audience with further and important information about OUR assessment of the agent’s act.

    Finally, I wonder how your account would apply to Huckleberry Finn style examples as (following Bennett) discussed by Nomy Arpaly and others. As in your weakness example, Huck doesn’t act in light of his ought-belief. But he doesn’t act in light of his reason-beliefs either. So he does not seem to meet your criteria for acting for a reason. But I feel at least some pull towards describing him as acting, not only in line with a reason, but for that reason. (Obviously much would turn here on whether we are willing to ascribe to Huck an unacknowledged belief in that reason.)

  4. 4. Posted by Joseph Raz | October 18, 2007 4:53 am

    Dear Guy,
    Thanks for these observations. You say ‘it is no counterexample to his [Broome’s] claim if beliefs about reasons also explained some actions’, and that is clearly true. Nor did I claim otherwise. My claim was that reasons (the facts which are reasons) are normative in themselves, and not merely in their role of explaining ought=facts, as Broome claims. Part of the case is through a proper understanding of ought=propositions, some pointers towards which I offer in my paper. Another part of the case is that reasons play a normative role without the mediation of ought facts. So, it does not matter to my argument that the reasons for which the weak-willed acts (the pleasure of smoking) can or would play a role in explanation of some ought=facts in some actual or hypothetical circumstances. All that is needed is that they are normative in such a way that their normativity on that occasion is independent of whatever role they can or do play in the explanation of ought=facts. That is why many cases of weak=willed actions are relevant for they are undertaken for reasons, but against what ought to be done and what the agent believes ought to be done.
    I am afraid that I do not see why you doubt that the person who smokes against his better judgement because he enjoys the smell or the taste, etc., is not acting for a reason. The idea that he is acting under compulsion seems far fetched. Point out to him that his boss is about to appear and he will be in trouble for smoking in a no smoking zone and he has no difficulty in stopping to smoke. Weak willed actions are as far from compulsive action as is any other intentional action.
    A couple of other points: I do not of any successful argument that establishes that normative facts can causally affect how things are through being recognised, unless one deems successful the claims that explanations of intentional actions are not causal explanations. Whatever one thinks of those they are consistent with the views I express in the paper.
    And finally, re Huck Finn: my view atrributes to him beliefs but not awareness of his beliefs, let alone an ability to explain them. So I do not think that such cases are a counter-example. I explained these matters more fully elsewhere.

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