Thursday, February 01, 2018

Having Reasons: M. Schroeder

Regarding the following article:

Schroeder, M., 2008, “Having Reasons”, Philosophical Studies, 139: 57–71.

Some philosophers seem to be having a debate as to how it can be the case that a belief or a fact can be a reason for action.

To me, the answer is simple. They can’t. Desires provide the only end-reasons for intentional action. A person with a desire that P has a reason to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. Next question.

Well, let’s look over the debate in more detail.

The test case concerns Bernie. He has asked for a gin and tonic. He is served gasoline on ice. The assertion is that he has a reason to take a sip out of the glass. After all, he wanted a gin and tonic. He believes that the glass contains gin and tonic. If, under these circumstances, he does not take a sip out of the glass then he is being irrational. So, how can it be that he has a reason to take a sip out of the glass.

My answer, in more detail, is that he does not. He believes that he has a reason to take a sip out of the glass. However, his belief, like the belief that the glass contains a gin and tonic, is false. The same evidence that proves that the glass contains gasoline on ice also proves that Bernie has no reason to take a sip out of the glass.

Now, there is another kind of reason that applies to all states of affairs that can answer the question, “What is the reason for X?” If a house catches fire, and the fire marshal asks, “Why?”, the answer can sensibly be, “Because the owner set a can of gasoline near the heater.”

In this same sense, if the agent does take a sip out of the glass, and we were to ask why this happened, “Because he believed that it was gin and tonic” is a perfectly sensible answer. Beliefs have effects, so they are sometimes a part of causal explanations. However, this is not the same thing as “having a reason” to take a sip out of the glass. After all, the house with the gasoline next to the heater does not “have a reason” to catch fire.

A person has a reason to do X in the relevant sense if and only if he has a desire that P and the action would realize P.

The next question to answer is, “Why do people make this mistake?”

I would suggest that this is caused by an earlier assumption that value can be intrinsic to states of affairs. This assumption invited us to adopt a language in which reasons that reside in states of affairs, and where motivation resided in our awareness (beliefs) about those states of affairs, actually took place. It is like the assumption that atoms were the smallest bits of matter, so we adopt a word to describe the smallest pieces of an element that assumed that they could not be split into smaller parts. "Atom" means "indivisible".

However, the fact that we built these assumptions into our language does not prove that they are true. We cannot take the fact that our language contains these assumptions as proof that these kinds of reasons exist. They do not exist.

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