Friday, January 29, 2016

Williams on Internal and External Reasons - Part 1

If we are going to discuss internal and external reasons, then we must tackle Bernard Williams'  "Internal and External Reasons" (Williams, B., 1979. “Internal and External Reasons,” reprinted in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 101–13.)

My first question as I started the article was, "Did Williams see a distinction between ‘A has a reason to do φ’ and ‘There is a reason for A to do φ’?

According to Williams:
A has a reason to φ iff A has some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.
I was wondering if Williams recognized a distinction between this and:
There is a reason for A to φ iff there is some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.
It seems that he saw the distinction. He acknowledged it. And then he dismissed it, all in one quick parenthetical remark.

Sentences of the forms 'A has a reason to φ' or 'There is a reason for A to φ' (where ‘φ’ stands in for some verb of action) seem on the face of it to have two different sorts of interpretation. On the first, the truth of the sentence implies, very roughly, that A has some motive which will be served or furthered by his φ-ing . . . On the second interpretation, there is no such condition, and the reason-sentence will not be falsified by the absence of an appropriate motive. I shall call the first the 'internal', the second the 'external', interpretation. (Given two such interpretations, and the two forms of sentence quoted, it is reasonable to suppose that the first sentence more naturally collects the internal interpretation, and the second the external, but it would be wrong to suggest that either form of words admits only one of the interpretations.)

What he says is correct if one is concerned only with the conceptual analysis of the terms. Philosophers, at least, seem to be using “has a reason” and “there is a reason” almost interchangeably.

However, I am a fan of what I will call the "plutonization" of language. I am inventing this word. This looks at what astronomers did when they discovered objects in the Kuiper belt the size of Pluto. They did not perform a conceptual analysis to determine if the term “planet” applied to these objects. In fact, they could not deny that, given the fact that Pluto was so readily called a planet, that a conceptual analysis would conclude that these other things are planets as well. However, the conclusion they drew from this is that this tradition had outlived its purpose and was now muddling something Astronomers wanted to discuss more clearly. They wanted a language where like things were classified with like and different things were put in different groups. Consequently, they abandoned the original definition of “planet” and Pluto became a Kuiper belt object instead.

The important lesson to draw from this is that it had no effect on the objective nature of astronomy. It was not at all relevant to the conclusions of astronomy, it was merely a change in the language they would use to discuss those conclusions.

The proposed plutonization of reasons language says, “So that we can have a less muddled language when we investigate reasons, we will use the phrase ‘has a reason’ to refer to internal reasons and ‘there is a reason’ to refer to both internal and external reasons – basically – all reasons that exist. This would make sense in the same way that ‘has a car’ refers to the car the agent owns and ‘there is a car’ refers to all of the cars that exist, including the car that the agent owns.”

Williams will argue that there are no external reasons. We may be able to interpret this as saying that Williams is simply going to want to get rid of the more ambiguous “There is a reason”, leaving us solely with “A has a reason”. He does argue that there are no external reasons. And he says at one point that external reasons have only been introduced in terms of “there is a reason for A to . . .”

However, Williams cannot deny the existence of external desires – desires other than those that the agent has. He must be taken as wanting to say that external desires do not count as reasons.

Why not?

The answer is:
If something can be a reason for action, then it could be someone’s reason for acting on a particular occasion, and it would then figure in an explanation for that action.
External desires cannot figure into an explanation for somebody’s action – unless the agent had a desire that considers the desires of another person. Because of this, Williams would reject, “There is a reason for A to φ iff there is some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.

my response to this is to say that this is a condition for “has a reason”, but is not a condition for “there is a reason” – thus making the distinction between the two a little sharper. To qualify as a reason that the agent has, it must be a reason that it must be at least possible for the agent to act for that reason in some circumstances. To qualify as a reason that exist, it must be the case that an agent exists where it is at least possible for the agent to act for that reason in some circumstances.

These reasons that exist that are other than those that the agent has, that motivate people other than the agent, and that satisfy desires that exist, are the reasons that people refer to (or among the reasons that people refer to) when they ask why an action morally ought or ought not to be done. They are not reasons that the agent has or what the agent ought, in a practical sense, to do. However, they are reasons that are relevant to what the agent morally ought to do.

Nothing I have written actually disagrees substantively with what Williams has written – at least so far. I am using a slightly different language, but so far I am not using it to say that anything is true that Williams says is false. I am, as I mentioned above, plutonizing reasons language to try to get a language that makes more intuitive sense and is easier to use.

No comments: