Saturday, August 11, 2018

RoME 2018 05: Good Reasons for Action

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 05: Keshav Singh
“The Right “Right Reasons” Theory of Rationality”

Abstract: According to an influential way of thinking about the rationality of actions, beliefs, and other rationally evaluable responses, rationality is a matter of correctly responding to one’s reasons. Relevant theories of rationality hold that when one acts or believes (etc.) for reasons that are in some sense the ‘right reasons,’ one is thereby rational. In this paper, I argue that several recent versions of this ‘right reasons’ approach fail because they are committed to too thin a conception of what it is to correctly respond to reasons. Whether they hold that rationality consists in responding to objective normative reasons, or merely apparent reasons, such theories all take responding to reasons to consist in having a range of reasons-sensitive dispositions. I argue that because such dispositions can’t ground creditworthiness, they can’t explain why responding rationally is a way of being creditworthy for one’s responses. I conclude that we need a more robust conception of responding to reasons that involves the representational capacities of the agent.

Rationality is correctly responding to the right reasons for action.

This invites us to ask two questions: (1) What is a right reason? (2) What is it to correctly respond to such a reason?

Singh is interested in the first of these questions: what counts as the "right reasons"? In this, he examines two potential answers to this question:

One family of responses says that the "right reasons" are objective facts, and that correctly responding to right reasons involves correctly responding to those objective facts. If the forecast calls for rain tomorrow, then rationality involves correctly responding to this objective fact by wearing a raincoat.

As a counter to this, I would like to note that I often go out without a raincoat simply because avoiding getting wet is not worth the bother. More generally, wearing a raincoat is only a correct response to the objective fact of a forecast for rain if one had a reason to avoid getting wet, one had no other option for avoiding the rain (staying inside until it was over), and the burden of getting wet was greater than the burden of dealing with a raincoat. So, now, what is the correct response to an objective reason?

The objection to objective reasons accounts that Singh discusses is known in the literature as the "new evil demon objection". This asks us to imagine a world that is much like ours - at least from the agent's point of view - except that everything is being manipulated by an evil demon. An agent in this world is responding to a evil demon's manipulation to generate a forecast of rain, rather than an objective fact of rain. All of the agent's decisions are made from the same kind of evidence, but the agent is not responding to objective facts.

Another option was a set of theory that defined rationality in terms of competent response to reasons. However, this seems to simply push the questions concerning rationality back a bit - as we now have to determine what counts as competence.

Much of the discussion of this topic centered around the question of whether to call an attribution of rationality a statement of praise.

One argument in favor of the credit/blame approach is that it handles the new evil demon problem. Because the person in the real world and the person in the demon-run world are coming to the same conclusions based on the same reasons, there would be no sense in claiming that one deserves credit while the other deserves blame. Their levels of creditworthiness and blameworthiness seem identical. Though this does cause me to ask whether we may be begging the question. Perhaps we now need to ask what makes some forms of reasoning creditworthy and others blameworthy.

Mark Boespflug, who commented on the paper. Commenter Mark Boespflug tried to separate rationality from creditworthiness by identifying a number of cases in which rationality exists but creditworthiness does not exist. For example, beliefs formed from perception are rational, but the agent who forms such a belief does not deserve any praise or credit for this.

Against Boespflug's objections, it was brought out that many of our intentional actions (e.g., my correctly spelling the word 'word' on this example) are not praiseworthy either. This is because it is a morally neutral act. However, it is still within the realm of intentional actions and, while I deserve no praise if I were to correctly spell a word, I would deserve some condemnation for incorrect spelling (unless it was done for some other purpose such as to make a point). Analogously, an agent may not be praiseworthy for adopting a belief based on perception, but may be blameworthy for failure to do so.

A credit/blame theory of rationality would require - as Singh himself argues - that rationality be attributable to an agent. It must, in some way, be "me" forming the beliefs before somebody can sensibly be crediting or blaming me with attributions of rationality or irrationality

On the desirism account, backed by some research that appeared in In Praise of Desire by Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder, a trait is attributable if it is linked in some way to the reward centers of the brain (the center of desires). That is to say, the consequence must, in some way, be influenced by desires. The empirical research shows that people who perform actions not mediated by the reward center (e.g., Turrett Syndrome) do not experience the actions as "theirs" or attribute it to themselves, but as something that happens to them. If we follow this model, then rationality properly so called must be based on dispositions that are, at least, capable of being influenced by activity in the reward system. This is not to say that the belief comes directly from desire, but that the belief comes from habits or dispositions that can be influenced (improved upon or changed) as a result of desire-dependent actions. Arpaly and Schroeder provide evidence that deliberation itself is an act - often an intentional act - and the motivation to perform such acts comes from the reward center.

There seems to be some merit to this credit/blame conception of rationality. However, I have no opportunity to go into this topic further at this time. It is something worth keeping in mind.

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