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John Broome thinks normative reasons are either explanations or parts of explanations of why you ought to F. Stephen Kearns and I think normative reasons are evidence that you ought to F (and we propose this as a unified analysis that applies across both reasons for action and reasons for belief). Many philosophers working on reasons would reject both of these views, often because they think the concept of a reason is not susceptible to deep analysis. In our most recent paper on this topic, Stephen and I compare our own view with Broome’s, and we do so in a way that should help with more general efforts to assess Broome’s view. This paper, “Reasons: Explanations or Evidence?” can be downloaded here.

The first paper we wrote together on normative reasons, where we provided positive arguments for our view as well as responses to a series of objections, is available here (an earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Fourth Annual Metaethics Workshop). It certainly isn’t necessary to read this paper before reading the Broome-focused paper.

We very much welcome comments about the content of either of these papers.


Comments

  1. 1. Posted by Christian Lee | January 29, 2008 9:31 am

    John Broome thinks normative reasons are either explanations or parts of explanations of why you ought to F. Stephen Kearns and I think normative reasons are evidence that you ought to F.

    I’ve read neither of the papers you linked to. Here’s a thought nonetheless. There’s a difference between reasons possessed and reasons that exist. Perhaps the latter is vacuous, I’m not sure. But I do like subjective Consequentialism. The explanation for why one ought to F is that that one possesses reasons to F. For example, given what one has to go on, performing F maximizes expected utility. So the explanation view needs to be a ‘reasons possessed’ view. But it seems to me that there can be evidence that S ought to F, even if S does not know this. The ‘evidence for’ view can be understood, then, in either the ‘reasons possessed’ or the ‘reasons that exist’ way.

    I would reject the evidence view (yours) if the reasons are parsed in the ‘reasons that exist’ way, as a subjective Consequentialist. Understood in the ‘reasons possessed’ way, it is unclear to me what the difference between the two theses amounts to. The explanation and evidence view jointly appeal to beliefs to explain why one ought to F.

  2. 2. Posted by Errol Lord | January 29, 2008 3:50 pm

    Christian,

    Why not think that there are simply two analyses that determine the ‘reasons that exist’ and the ‘reasons possessed’ relations? That is, why not think that the set of ‘reasons possessed’ is a proper subset of the ‘reasons that exist’? You could take Kearns’s and Star’s analysis to be the analysis of ‘reasons that exist,’ and think that there is some conjunctive analysis of the ‘reasons possessed’ relation. The conjunctive analysis would be the conjunction of the ‘reasons that exist’ analysis with some relational epistemic property that agents can bear to the reasons that exist. When agents satisfy the conjunctive analysis, they possess the reason, or have it. If that was the way it worked, then Kearns and Star don’t necessarily have to worry about the reasons possessed relation; they could just be offering up an analysis of the first conjunct of that relation.

    Mark Schroeder has an interesting forthcoming paper about these types of issues. It’s called “Having Reasons” and can be found here.

  3. 3. Posted by Christian Lee | January 29, 2008 7:50 pm

    That is, why not think that the set of ‘reasons possessed’ is a proper subset of the ‘reasons that exist’?

    Errol, I’m suggesting something very different (and suggesting a thesis I dont believe, for that matter).

    (RP) There is a normative reason r to do F iff there is a subject s, a normative reason r to do F, and s has r. If you ask me how many normative reasons there are? I say just as many normative reasons possessed.

    That’s the idea. So I’m interested to hear what is going to distinguish Broome’s “explanation” thesis from the “evidence for” thesis, while assuming my ‘reasons possessed’ thesis. Consider an example from epistemology and the reasons for belief. A reason why one ought to believe P, on some occasion, is another belief (the possesed evidence) and this belief/s plays the joint role of being part of an explanation for why one ought to believe P (the evidence supports P) and being the evidence that one ought to believe P.

  4. 4. Posted by Errol Lord | January 29, 2008 8:37 pm

    Christian,

    I don’t think that the view you propose is that much different. To use my original terminology, it just says that the only reasons for are the reasons had. I am curious about your question too.

    Here is what I would say if I were Star and Kearns. RP is still a conjunctive analysis. We are offering up a theory of the first conjunct. Thus, even if RP is true, our theory can be true as well. So, according to us, in order for the first conjunct of RP to be true, it must be the case that R is evidence for the proposition ‘S ought to F’. According to Broome, in order for the first conjunct to be true, it must be the case that R is the/figures in to the explanation of why ‘S ought to F’ is true.

    If RP is true, you might think Broome’s view is better, since the fact that S has F will have to be part of the explanation of why ‘S ought to F’ is true. Broome’s view can say that it is part of the explanation, and that the additional things that play a role in the explanation are the reasons.

    I think that RP is false too. But I do think that The Factoring Account is right.

    (TFA) S has reason R iff R is a reason for Fing and S is in a position to know R.

    My question to Star and Kearns is this: If (TFA) is true, do you hold that S being in a position to know R is evidence for the proposition ‘S ought to F’?

  5. 5. Posted by Errol Lord | January 29, 2008 8:45 pm

    Christian,

    I just re-read what I initially posted, and I realized that I put ‘proper subset’. If I would have simply put ‘subset’, then RP fits the model that I proposed in my first comment. It just so happens that the set of reasons had and the set of reasons for are the same.

  6. 6. Posted by Daniel Star | January 29, 2008 11:06 pm

    We address this issue on pages 6 to 7 of “Reasons: Explanations or Evidence?” (as well as on pages 21 to 22 of “Reasons as Evidence”).

  7. 7. Posted by Christian Lee | January 30, 2008 1:02 am

    Daniel,

    It appears my worry is considered extensively in your first citation. I suppose thoughtful commentary is going to require reading you response there. So…

    Errol,

    The ‘proper’ in ‘proper subset’ was the problem.

    I think that RP is false too. But I do think that The Factoring Account is right.

    If RP is false, I’m not sure why. Perhaps you have an objection in mind? But your TFA is consistent with RP, of course. RP is about what it takes for there to be a reason, and TFA is about what it takes for one to have a reason.

    I don’t know what to say to TFA. It seems to me that its plausibility depends crucially one how to cash out, exactly, the phrase ‘in a position to know’. Maybe it’s right, as far as I can tell.

  8. 8. Posted by Christian Lee | January 30, 2008 11:32 pm

    Hi Daniel,

    I read your paper now (on Broome). Here are three worries:

    P1) One’s desires are sometimes reasons that one ought to F.
    P2) Desires are never evidence.
    P3) If (P1) and (P2), then sometimes a reason to F is not evidence that one ought to F.
    C) So, the account you’re defending in the paper has a problem.

    I think (P1) is true. Suppose before creation there is a God and he wants to create. He has then a reason to create as creating will satify his desire to create. (P2) is true since for any evidence E, if E is evidence for N, E is a belief. One’s belief that one desires to F is, perhaps, both evidence and part of the explanation for why one ought to F, but the desire qua desire is too. The rest follows.

    Next, suppose there is world in which some God exist and has yet to create. He does, however, want to create, and for some peculiar reason he wants to create a world without evidence. This God ought to create a world without evidence as doing so will satisfy his desire to. So he does. If your view is correct, then this description is impossible. It is not impossible. There could be reasons for why one ought to F in a world without evidence.

    Then there is the problem I mentioned earlier. It wasn’t clear to me what your response to it, in the paper, amounted to. Assume E is evidence only if E is possessed. That is, E is a reason for why one ought to F iff there is an N such that N has some evidence that N ought to F. Suppose Subjective Consequentialism is true, so that, N ought to F iff N’s evidence (his beliefs about value and probabilities) entail that F-ing is best. In such a case, N’s beliefs explain why N ought to F and N’s beliefs are also his evidence for why he ought to F. The accounts then coincide. Assuming that N ought to F is true iff Subjective Consequentialism is true, the two views coincide (on the act interpretation).

  9. 9. Posted by Daniel Star | January 31, 2008 12:43 am

    Thank you for your comment, Christian. In response: Desires are not reasons, and they are not evidence. The view that desires are reasons (even only sometimes) has been rightly criticised by Scanlon, Parfit etc. However, the fact that I desire to F can be a reason to F, as the fact that I desire to F can be evidence that I ought to F. If the traditional God desires to F, that is evidence that he ought to F, and a reason for him to F. The only reason it might sound strange to speak of evidence in such a case is that God is omniscient, so he always knows what he ought to do. Which is just to say that he always has conclusive evidence as to what he ought to do. On your last point: You say, “Assume E is evidence only if E is possessed”. If by “possessed” you mean actually possessed by the agent being considered, then I am not at all inclined to grant the assumption. But I might grant it if “possessed” is used in reference to an idealized agent (see footnote 7 on page 7 of “Reasons: Explanations or Evidence?”). I don’t see any problem here.

  10. 10. Posted by Christian Lee | January 31, 2008 3:41 am

    Desires are not reasons, and they are not evidence. The view that desires are reasons (even only sometimes) has been rightly criticised by Scanlon, Parfit etc.

    Wow! I didn’t expect that. I guess I don’t know what you mean by reason. I though it meant some fact that counts in favor of an action.

    However, the fact that I desire to F can be a reason to F.

    This seems to be to be a blatant contradiction with you say above.

    The only reason it might sound strange to speak of evidence in such a case is that God is omniscient, so he always knows what he ought to do.

    It sounds okay to me. God can have evidence. What is strange is the idea that it’s metaphysically impossible for God’s desires to give him a reason to do something he ought. It sounds pretty okay by my ear to say God desires people to know Him an have a relationship with Him, so he has a normative reason to make Himself evident.

    If by “possessed” you mean actually possessed by the agent being considered, then I am not at all inclined to grant the assumption.

    Okay. But then you deny Subjective Consequentialism. That’s a heavy price indeed.

  11. 11. Posted by Daniel Star | January 31, 2008 3:52 am

    “Wow! I didn’t expect that. I guess I don’t know what you mean by reason. I though it meant some fact that counts in favor of an action.”

    Wow! You clearly misread my post. I said “Desires are not reasons, and they are not evidence.” Desires are not facts! I then said “the fact that I desire to F can be a reason to F”. The fact that I desire to F is not the very same thing as my desire to F.

  12. 12. Posted by Stephen Kearns | January 31, 2008 5:05 am

    Just a few points:

    Like Daniel says (and, seemingly, Christian agrees), normative reasons are facts. Desires are not facts. So desires are not normative reasons. (They may well be motivating reasons though).

    I think it is probably impossible for God to create a world without evidence (even if evidence is evidence only if possessed) as God has lots of evidence and He is part of the world. So I don’t see any trouble there.

    There is also no trouble, as Daniel says, with the fact that God has a certain desire being evidence (and thus a reason).

    Christian (thanks a lot for reading the paper!): You suggest that if we say that there can be unpossessed evidence, then we have to deny subjective consequentialism. But I don’t know why you think that. These two ideas are perfectly compatible as far as I can tell.

    Errol: You ask: ‘If(TFA) is true, do you hold that S being in a position to know R is evidence for the proposition ‘S ought to F’?’
    Whether or not TFA is true, the fact that S is in a position to know R (a reason for Fing) is evidence that S ought to F. Why? Because this fact entails that there is evidence that S ought to F). And evidence of evidence that P is evidence that P.

  13. 13. Posted by Christian Lee | January 31, 2008 9:55 am

    I see.

  14. 14. Posted by Christian Lee | January 31, 2008 7:45 pm

    Thanks Stephen, I’m beggining to get clearer on things. Your comment helped. Let me ask a few questions and motivate my worries. Do you think a normative reason must be a fact? I see now that, on your view the fact that that I desire coffee can be evidence that I ought to get some coffee. I didn’t see this before. I think this is right.

    My worry with your use of ‘evidence’ is simply that evidence is evidence for someone, that something is evidence for someone only when they recognize that evidence as such. Supposing facts are evidence it is evidence recognized as such that generates reasons to believe, act, etc…Do you accept this view, or do you simply think that some facts that generate reasons are like this, while others or not? If so, why?

    You suggest that if we say that there can be unpossessed evidence, then we have to deny subjective consequentialism. But I don’t know why you think that.

    The idea is that one has a reason to do F, on subjective cons. iff one possesses evidence that one ought to do F. That is, on this view (that I’m suggesting anyway) only possessed evidence recognized as such generates normative reasons for action. And so, if your view is committed to the idea that evidence that is not possessed can also generate normative reasons for action (is it?) then that was the problem.

    Lastly, what generated most of my thoughts here was that it seems to me all sort of things can generate normative reasons, e.g., suppositions, beliefs, desires, imaginings, hopes, fears…love. I thought your view was inconsistent with this, but now I see it is not. All these things, stated in fact form, count as evidence.

    Final worry: you say that a normative reason for F-ing is evidence that one ought to F. If the fact that I imagine, hope, etc…that F gives me evidence for something, it seems to me that the evidence for/that relation is not clearer, more informative, than the reasons for relation. Are there important constraints on the evidence for relation, or what can as evidence, other than that only facts can stand in it and count?

  15. 15. Posted by Daniel Star | January 31, 2008 10:24 pm

    Thank you, Christian. You say, “The idea is that one has a reason to do F, on subjective cons. iff one possesses evidence that one ought to do F. That is, on this view (that I’m suggesting anyway) only possessed evidence recognized as such generates normative reasons for action.” Remove “on subjective cons.” from the first sentence for a moment. Then I agree with the first sentence, but not with the second (ignoring the “that I’m suggesting anyway” since of course I agree you are suggesting it). I agree with the first sentence (without “on subjective cons.”), because as we say in the papers, we think “has a reason” partners up with “has evidence”. We deny that only possessed evidence generates normative reasons for action, as we claim “there is a reason” partners up with “there is evidence”.

    On your view, there is no reason at all to run out of the building with a hidden bomb in it (i.e. a bomb about which one possesses no evidence). Many people have a strong intuition that there is a reason to run out of the building and our view respects this intuition. It also respects the intuition that if you don’t possess evidence to run out of the building then you don’t possess a reason to run out of the building.

    I take subjective consequentialism to be a theory that is essentially concerned with oughts, or, so far as many of its defenders are concerned, moral requirements (and note that we do not focus in these papers on moral obligations or a specifically moral sense of ought, but on the broad ought instead). Since subjective consequentialism essentially only involves a claim about moral requirements (or, possibly, oughts), it seems that it is compatible with a wide range of views about reasons, ours included.

  16. 16. Posted by Christian Lee | January 31, 2008 11:49 pm

    Many people have a strong intuition that there is a reason to run out of the building and our view respects this intuition.

    Right, this is what I’m challenging. I’m saying there is no reason, but there is a fact such that were people aware of it, they would have a reason to run out of the building. It counts as a reason only when it’s possessed. I’m not convinced by the bomb case, but maybe you have other intuition pumps to get me on board, I’m open.

    I take subjective consequentialism to be a theory that is essentially concerned with oughts, or, so far as many of its defenders are concerned, moral requirements…

    Fair enough and that was the motivation for the parenthetical “that I’m suggesting anyway”. Anyway, the idea was to state a theory where one’s evidence possessed, and only their possessed evidence, determines whether an act ought to be done “and” one in which that ought is the only normative ought relevant to actions. I can imagine one defending a view like this. I was curious what you might have to say about it.

  17. 17. Posted by Clayton Littlejohn | June 26, 2008 6:26 pm

    Daniel,

    I think that you’ve wrapped up these papers long ago and I’m not sure if you’re interested in further discussion, but I had one quick thought. There’s a lot right about the view you and Kearns develop in “Reasons as Evidence”, or so say I. There’s one worry, however, that you don’t address that has to do with conflicts. (It might be in the neighborhood of Egan and Dreier’s worry, but I think it might be different.)

    I believe it was Bernard Williams who observed that there can be a kind of conflict among practical reasons that there cannot be among theoretical reasons. If we identify both reasons for action and belief with evidence, I think you’ll have to deny Williams’ observation. So, the observation. You can judge that you ought to X knowing that there are real reasons not to that serve as reasons for regret. Moreover, you can _knowingly_ judge that you ought to X while knowing that there are, as it were, real reasons not to X that are defeated by reasons that favor X-ing. However, if you judge that you ought to believe, you cannot knowingly judge that you ought to believe while knowingly judging that there are real reasons not to believe. The evidence that speaks against believing would be regarded as misleading.

    I can’t see how this comes out true on a view on which all reasons are pieces of evidence.

    I also have a question about the view. I thought that the standard view was that pieces of evidence are considerations that pertain to the truth of a belief rather than the normative proposition about what ought to be believed. While I can see that reasons ought to stand in some intimate relation to the ought, why think that pieces of evidence do not stand primarily in relation to the non-normative claim that some claim is true? Depending on how you fill out the ‘ought’, I can see that this might be a problem, or it might not be. If, following the evidentialists, you think that ‘S ought to believe’ is analyzed in terms of evidence (e.g., ‘S ought to believe’ is true if there is sufficient undefeated evidence of which S is aware), you get the odd result that the right to believe involves the possession of evidence that pertains to whether there is sufficient undefeated evidence of which the subject is aware. If, following Sutton, you think that we really ought to be speaking in terms of things that oughtn’t be believed and things we may believe, I have a hard time formulating your view.

    One final worry. If there are reasons that favor X-ing, you have no reason not to X, but don’t X, if the reasons are of a kind to make it such that you ought to X, it would be wrong not to. In the practical case, this seems right. In the epistemic case, I’m not so sure. I have a hard time imagining cases where someone’s guilty of an epistemic failing simply for failing to believe what is obvious, evident, etc… If they _resist_ believing some obvious, evidence, etc… claim for non-epistemic reasons _that_ seems wrongful (e.g., parents in denial about their kids). If they simply don’t bother to form the beliefs, I see nothing wrongful at all. Whereas practical reasons seem to demand actions from us, evidence does not seem quite so demanding. It points us in a direction, we may end up believing, but if we don’t, bits of evidence aren’t ‘let down’ in the way that practical considerations are.

    Anyway, I’d be interested to know what you thought if you had the chance to drop a line.

  18. 18. Posted by Daniel Star | July 15, 2008 7:39 pm

    Clayton,

    I’m glad you found a lot to agree with in our paper. We really appreciate the feedback. The delay in responding to your post was largely due to the fact that we needed to meet deadlines recently for both of the reasons papers (and the final drafts are now available on my website). Let me respond to each of your main points in turn.

    “I believe it was Bernard Williams…”

    It is true that we can’t say practical and theoretical reasons are different in precisely the way Williams wanted to say they were, but we can say: (1) in many of the relevant cases, one will not be sure one ought to X, so the reasons will still seem to pull strongly in the opposite direction; (2) even in cases where one knows one ought to X, it is still possible to judge that one has evidence to the contrary (as you point out, one will be likely to think of this evidence as misleading; still, the point I would insist on is that the evidence is still a reason, pulling in the opposite direction); (3) most importantly, I think there is an alternative diagnosis of these situations available to us (situations that involve a practical conflict), a diagnosis that may do just as good a job of explaining the intuitions that Williams is appealing to – we can still say that the goodness or badness of options does not evaporate or diminish as the reasons are seen to vanish or diminish (assuming we reject the buck-passing account of goodness, and there are good independent reasons for doing so). I might strongly regret that I need to X given that X has very bad consequences for you, and perhaps I have a strong reason to regret harming you, even when I judge that the reasons not to harm you were misleading. One more thing: I’m not sure that it is true that “you cannot knowingly judge that you ought to believe while knowingly judging that there are real reasons not to believe” – rather, one might judge that there are misleading reasons to believe.

    “I also have a question about the view. …”

    Some philosophers talk of evidence as being evidence for beliefs, rather than being evidence for the truth of propositions, but I don’t think everyone talks of evidence this way. I don’t believe it is radical to relate evidence to propositions rather than beliefs. In fact, I can’t understand what it would mean to say that something is evidence for a belief where that doesn’t just mean it is evidence that counts in favor of the proposition believed being true.

    “One final worry. …”

    I guess you are denying that responses to practical reasons can be merely supererogatory. That’s okay with me, because I have a hard time working out how they could be. I don’t actually think there is a disanalogy between practical and theoretical reasons here: in both cases, we can compare the way in which it is rational to respond to reasons when one is aware of them with the way it may be rational to (indirectly) respond to reasons when one is not aware of them. Take some absolutely trivial and unimportant true proposition P and some similarly trivial and unimportant true P->Q (for the same P). I think it is actually true that one ought to believe Q if one consciously entertains both P and P->Q; however, it doesn’t follow from this that one ought to consciously entertain P and P->Q. For other values of P and Q, one might be epistemically irresponsible if one does not entertain P and P->Q and thus come to believe Q. When it comes to practical reasons, it is also one question what one rationally ought to do, given the evidence one presently possesses (to which the answer is very often: look for more evidence before making a decision!), and another question what there is reason to do.

    Hope that helps. Thanks again!

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