Expressivist accounts of normative judgment typically (always?) begin with all-things-considered verdicts: Hurrah (helping old ladies cross the road)! Boo (getting your little brother to murder)! But of course, many normative thoughts are not all-things-considered. I think there is some reason for me to go to bed early, and some reason for me not to do so. When I deliberate, I try to figure out which of these is stronger, and so arrive at an all-things-considered judgment.
Here is a partial list of things that an account of thoughts about reasons should explain:
1) Pro tanto judgements: It is possible to think that A has reason to φ, although A ought not φ, all things considered.
2) Comparative judgments: It is possible to think that r is a stronger reason to φ than r’ is to not φ.
3) Non-additivity: It is possible to think that r is a reason to φ and think that one has more reason to φ in the absence of r.
4) Lack of isomorphism: It is possible to think that A has reason to φ, although A ought not be at all motivated to φ. (First-person corollary: It is possible to think I have reason to φ without being either akratic or at all motivated to φ.)
5) Generality: It is possible to have reasons to act without deliberation or decision, as well as reasons to feel in a certain way.
Jonathan Dancy has argued, both in Ethics Without Principles (OUP, 2004) and ‘What Do Reasons Do’ (in Horgan and Timmons (eds.), Metaethics After Moore, OUP 2006), that expressivists fail to account for 1, judgments about pro tanto or ‘contributory’ reasons, even if they can explain overall ought-judgments. The ultimate explanation for this is that it is in general not possible to explain contributory reasons in terms of what we ought to do. An expressivist will have to assume otherwise, since she is bound to work with attitudes of all-out approval or disapproval, like accepting norms for guilt and anger (Gibbard).
To see the problem, consider a simple case. George has promised John to help him move, but has to abandon this plan in order to save Ringo from drowning. I think George does the right thing, though his promise gave him some reason to help John instead. What does my thought consist in, on the expressivist account? It certainly cannot be that I accept a norm requiring George to feel guilt for not helping John – since I think he did what he should have done, I don’t think he should feel guilty. Nor should anyone be angry with him for failing to keep his promise, in these circumstances. Quite the contrary – he would have acted wrongly, had he kept his promise. Yet I continue to think he had a reason to help John. What, then, is the attitude that constitutes such a thought? In Dancy’s words, “The difficulty is to make sense of the idea that one might approve of S’s φ-ing to some extent while being entirely against it.” (Dancy 2006, 57)
Gibbard has an answer to this: “To say that R is some reason for S to φ in C is to express acceptance of a system of norms that directs us to award some weight to R in deciding whether to φ in C” (Gibbard 1990, 163). Putting this directly in moral psychological terms, when I think that the fact he promised so is some reason for George to help John, I accept a system of norms that directs George to award some weight to having promised in deciding whether to help John. More simply, I approve of George giving weight to the promise in deciding. So here we indeed have an all-out attitude, approval or acceptance of norms, not toward an action but rather toward awarding weight in deciding to act.
Dancy rejects this analysis for a number of reasons. Here’s a reconstruction of one argument:
a) To award weight to r in deciding whether to φ is either to think that r favours φ-ing or give consideration to whether r in deciding to φ
b) If the former, the analysis is uninformative (it makes appeal to thinking that r favours φ-ing, which is precisely what we’re trying to understand)
c) If the latter, the analysis if false, because it is possible to award weight in this sense without thinking that r is a reason to φ: “I might think, for instance, that I should always consider the question whether R if I am deciding whether to φ in C, but suppose nonetheless that on many occasions the question whether R or not will be in fact irrelevant to how I ought to act.”
d) So, we can’t understand reason judgments in terms of approving awarding weight in deciding.
I believe Gibbard would deny a) (he does something of the sort in Thinking How To Live), and with good reason. But rather than trying to extract a rival interpretation of Gibbard, I’ll rather offer an alternative expressivist formulation that is designed to deal with all of 1-5 above and avoid Dancy’s challenge. I will assume, for the sake of argument at least, that expressivists can make sense of all-out normative judgments. Here goes:
Expressivism about reason judgments
To judge that r is a pro tanto reason for A to φ in C is to approve of A’s awareness of r having causal influence in the direction of φ-ing on the mechanism(s) responsible for A’s φ-ing or not in C.
This is a permissive formulation. For judgments about peremptory or requiring reasons, substitute ‘disapprove of A’s awareness of r not having causal influence’. It is a nice feature of the account that it allows for making a distinction between thoughts about how demanding reasons are.
Note that I take awareness to be factive: if r is not the case, A can’t be aware of r.
How does this work with the desiderata above?
1) Pro tanto judgments: On the expressivist view, let’s say, to think A ought to φ is to disapprove of A’s failing to φ. (Again, we’re assuming an acceptable account of all-out approval and disapproval.) To think A ought not φ is to disapprove of A’s φ-ing. So, to think George ought not help John is to disapprove of George’s helping John. As desired, this is compatible with approving of George’s awareness of the fact that he promised to help John having causal influence in the direction of helping John on the mechanism responsible for whether he helps John or not. Let’s say the mechanism is his deliberative system. If I think George has some reason to help John, I approve of his knowing he promised influencing in the direction of helping, perhaps by creating deliberative pathways that remain blocked in the actual situation (by the more urgent reason), but would lead to motivational pull in a host of nearby possible worlds. I might even disapprove of George if his promise made no difference to the way he arrives at the choice to save Ringo instead.
2) Comparative judgments: The account extends naturally to comparison. To think that r is stronger reason to φ than r’ is to not φ is to approve of the following scenario: awareness of r influences the mechanism responsible for φ-ing in the direction of φ-ing to a greater degree than awareness of r’ influences the mechanism in the direction of not φ-ing. If the mechanism is deliberation, it is to approve of knowledge of r having a stronger causal influence toward deciding to φ than knowledge of r’ has toward deciding not to φ. To think that the fact that Ringo is about to drown is a stronger peremptory reason for George than the fact that George has promised to help John is to disapprove of awareness of Ringo’s drowning not having more influence on George’s decision than awareness of his promise. To think that George has most or overall moral reason to jump in the water is to morally disapprove of some set of considerations not having decisive influence in leading George to jump in the water – in short, to morally disapprove of George not jumping (or not trying to jump) in the water. We’ll want comparative judgments to lead to overall judgments in some such way.
3) Non-additivity: Dancy argues that there are cases in which something is a reason to φ, though in its absence there would be even more reason to φ. His example is along these lines: The fact that someone is my friend might be a reason for me to give him a hand getting up – but if he wasn’t my friend, I might have even more reason to give him a hand getting up (it would be more admirable etc.). This rules out accounts on which thinking that r is a reason to φ is approving of φ-ing more on account of r than otherwise. (Such an account would meet desideratum 1, since it is possible to disapprove of φ-ing all things considered while nevertheless approving of it more in the presence of r than otherwise). This is not a problem for the present suggestion, however. To think that the fact that Ringo is George’s friend is a reason for George to help him is to approve of awareness of it influencing George’s decision to help. To think that were Ringo a stranger, George would have even more reason to help, is to approve of the awareness that Ringo is a stranger having more influence on George’s decision in counterfactual scenario than the actual awareness has in the actual world.
4) Lack of isomorphism: I take it that it’s possible for awareness of r to have causal influence on a mechanism responsible for φ-ing in the direction of φ-ing in other ways than giving rise to motivation to φ. Influencing the structure of deliberation, for example, can count as relevant influence without counting as motivation. This way we avoid having to think that for every reason, we must expect at least a tiny bit of motivation.
5) Generality: The account is formulated in terms of mechanisms responsible for φ-ing or not to include emotions and non-deliberate actions. The fact that I got a job interview can be a reason for me to feel happy. To think so is to approve of my awareness of this fact causally influencing my mood mechanism, say, in the direction of happiness.
Finally, the proposal avoids Dancy’s Dilemma. To approve of r having causal influence in, say, deliberation, is not merely to approve of considering (entertaining?) r when deciding whether to φ, so an analogue of c fails to apply. Nor is it to approve of think of r as a favouring consideration, so an analogue of b fails to apply.
So what’s wrong with it?