Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Dialogue on Reasons

For the last few days I have been involved in a discussion with ScottF over in the comment section of "Williams on Internal and External Reasons - Part 2".

Which explains where I have been spending some of my time these past couple of days.

It's a good discussion, and if those following these posts did not know it was there I would direct you to those comments. I think they have been quite productive.

One of the items that has come to the surface is a distinction between two senses under which we can talk about reasons for action.

There is the sense that I have been using in my posts - where the reasons for doing something are the things that give the thing done its value. I hold that desires-as-ends (the things we desire for their own sake), and facts about the world, are the only things that give an action its value. So, a desire to drink some water, and the fact that pressing a button will dispense a glass of water, gives the act of pressing the button its value. That value is independent of what the agent beliefs. Furthermore, no belief gives any act value.

And there is a sense that ScottF seemed to have been using - a sense in which "a reason to perform an action" aims at revealing whatever it is that makes sense of "performing an action for a particular reason".

An important part of the distinction between the two is that we cannot make the sense of the agent pressing the button for the sake of getting a glass of water to drink without assigning to the agent certain beliefs. A belief that pressing the button at least might dispense water is an inseparable part of what it is to press the button for the sake of getting some water to drink. If this is our question, then beliefs are essential.

On the account I have been defending, the agent could press the button for the sake of swatting a fly that happened to land on the button. It then (to the agent's surprise) dispenses a glass of water that the thirst agent can then drink. The agent had a reason to press the button without knowing it, and the value of pressing the button has nothing to do with him pressing the button for that reason.

True beliefs reveal that which an agent has reason to do. Correspondingly, they expose that which the agent falsely believes she has a reason to do. They do not create reasons to perform the action (meaning, they do not add value to the action). They reveal (or expose) that which the agent already and actually has (and does not have) a reason to do.

ScottF is still writing as if I have confessed to some philosophical sin, making statements like, "But this is all quite incidental to the other points I've made about the two different bases you seem to have admitted to having for our having reasons."

I brought up that there is a distinction between the two senses of the phrase "having a reason". However, in my writings, I have only been concerned with the first sense - the sense of what it is for an action to have value - the sense of what the goal or the purpose of the action happens to be. The question of "what does it mean for an action to be done for a particular reason" may be a worthwhile philosophical question, but it is not a question that concerns me in these posts.

We have also gotten into a discussion of whether it makes sense for a person to have a reason to do that which is impossible.

On that question, I have given no firm answer. It can be true of even an impossible action that, "If the agent were to perform that action, then some of his desires would be satisfied." In this sense, an agent does have a reason to perform the impossible action. However, since it is an impossible action, it would be a waste of time for him to turn his attention in that direction. Consequently, we have reason to write into the meaning of "has a reason" that this implies "can", and to treat impossible actions as actions the agent has no reason to perform.

As I said, if you have had an interest in this discussion, you might want to take a look at that discussion.


ScottF said...

"I brought up that there is a distinction between the two senses of the phrase "having a reason". However, in my writings, I have only been concerned with the first sense - the sense of what it is for an action to have value - the sense of what the goal or the purpose of the action happens to be."

I don't think there's any "philosophical sin" here. :-) But I think you've done more than just show exclusive concern for the first sense. You've written repeatedly as if the first sense was the only *correct* sense of the phrase "P had a reason to A." Or perhaps--feel free to clarify or correct me on this--you think it is the central case (the other reasons being unusual or deviant), or the better way to use it, or most common, or most objectively interesting sense, but willing to allow that others might be interested in the latter. If so, then we can live and let live. But you seem to lean to the stronger claim that evidence-subjective "reasons" aren't reasons at all (and more or less obviously so). I think this is just incorrect.

If all speakers of English had always used different words for these two concepts (1. what actual causal results of an action are valuable, in light of which we value the cause; 2. what patterns of evidence certain patterned responses thereto tend, over time, to deliver this same kind of value in what they cause, in light of which we value those response patterns both as standing dispositions and in their various instantiations--even in instances which do not deliver the hoped-for-value), then I would have no demand to change this practice. Perhaps unfortunately, we often use the same word for both: "reason." I only demand the right to use the word in the second sense--and the recognition that it is often so used, correctly, in non-philosophical English, as in "the scientific evidence gives us reason to believe in black holes, and Ptolemy had some reason to think that the planets moved in circles and epicycles."

And I also think that the second kind of reason is by far the most interesting. But to each his own!

ScottF said...

I should have added (again, not to suggest I am concerned exclusively with belief--although the adoption of a belief *is* a choice done for practical reasons), that is also legitimate to say "the reason the doctor prescribed pill A, known to be not the most effective possible drug, is that she didn't know which other drugs were more effective" and "the reason we split the water in the mineshaft, drowning 10 miners, is that we didn't know which of the other two options would save them all, and which would drown them all."