Many philosophers today are pursuing a program according to
which the notion of a “normative reason” is the most fundamental normative notion. Thus,
these philosophers aim to analyse such notions as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, the
notions of the various sorts of “value”, and so on, in terms of the kinds of
attitudes that we have “normative reason” to have, or the kinds of actions that we
have “normative reason” to perform.
In my view, this program suffers from a serious flaw: it
fails to recognize quite how profoundly context-sensitive the term ‘reason’ is. In consequence, this program is doomed to
waste a lot of time debating various pseudo-problems, which arise from failing
to recognize that in different contexts, the term ‘reason’ expresses different concepts.
Of course, philosophers have long known that the term ‘reason’
is used in many ways: for example, there are pure explanatory reasons (‘The reason for the bridge’s collapse was that its girders were suffering from metal fatigue’) and motivating reasons
(‘Martin’s reason for flying to Ireland was to go to his aunt’s funeral’), as
well as normative reasons (‘There are
reasons to be sceptical of this philosophical program’).
In fact, I am inclined to think that all of these uses of the
term ‘reason’ have some link with explanation.
Even the purely normative reasons are in a way explanatory: a normative reason
for a certain action or attitude is something that goes some way towards
explaining why that action or attitude has some positive normative status (like being an action that it is rational for one to perform, or an
attitude that it is appropriate to
have, or the like).
Still, even if we restrict our attention to statements about
“normative reasons”, it seems to me that the term ‘reason’ expresses
different concepts in different contexts. As I said, all normative reasons for
an action or attitude go some way towards explaining why that action or
attitude has some positive normative status; but there are many different sorts
of “positive normative status”.
For instance, suppose that you have a reasonable belief in proposition
that is in fact false. E.g., suppose that you reasonably believe that the man
approaching you is an enemy soldier who is determined to kill you, and that the
only way to defend yourself is to shoot him. In fact, however, the man is entirely
innocent and poses no threat of any kind. Do you “have a reason” to shoot him?
Well, if you shoot him, your act is perfectly rational, and indeed excusable; your
reasonable belief counts as an excuse in the eyes of the criminal law. But in
another sense, your act is not right; anyone
else who knew that the man approaching you posed no threat would be under an obligation to try to stop you from shooting
him if they could. So perhaps you don’t really “have
a reason” to shoot him?
The best way to handle such cases, in my view, is to say that your act of
shooting the man has one positive normative status (it is rational and
excusable), but lacks another (it is not objectively right). So in one sense, you
have “normative reason” to shoot (there is something that explains why your act
is rational and excusable); but in another equally legitimate sense, you do not
have “normative reason” for shooting (there is nothing that goes any way
towards explaining why your act was objectively right). It would be an
unprofitable pseudo-problem to worry about whether you really have reason to shoot him.
Yet another pseudo-problem that philosophers will get easily sucked
into is to worry about what your reason
is in these cases. We might think that in this case your reason for shooting
the man is the fact that it is reasonable for you to believe that the man
is attacking you. But of course, if we asked you to say what your reason
is, you would say that your reason is the fact that the man is attacking you.
Moreover, if the man really were attacking you, it would seem perfectly
true to say that your “normative reason” for shooting him consisted of
the fact that he was attacking you.
But surely it would be a sort of “double counting” to say that both the fact that the man was attacking you and
the fact that it was reasonable for you to believe that he was
attacking you are reasons for shooting him? In this way, it can start
to seem hard to say what your reason is.
This problem is easily dissolved if we say that “normative reasons”
of the sort that go towards explaining why an act is rational or excusable are
always facts about what beliefs or other attitudes it is reasonable for the agent to have, while “normative
reasons” of the sort that go towards explaining why an act is objectively right very often include
other sorts of facts about the external world.
It is worth noting that there is compelling linguistic
evidence that the term ‘ought’ is context-sensitive in exactly the same way. Suppose
that you are on top of a tower tracking someone who is making his way through a
maze on the ground. You might say, ‘He has no way of knowing it, but he ought
to turn to Left at this point’. But you might also say, ‘Since all the evidence that
he has had so far supports going Right, he ought to turn Right
(and not Left) at this point.’ Both your statements seem perfectly true, when
taken in their intended sense. But it surely can’t be true in this case that he
ought both to turn Left and not to turn Left. So, it seems, we must distinguish
between “objective” and “subjective” senses of ‘ought’.
As I have argued, the same point is true of ‘reasons’ as
well. So philosophers who take all their linguistic intuitions about the term ‘reasons’
to concern one and the same concept will be led into unprofitable pseudo-problems.
This is in my view a serious flaw with the “reasons” program.