Practical and Epistemic Reasons

We act for reasons all the time. Here's an interesting question: (Q1) what kind of thing are those reasons our actions are based on?

We believe things for reasons all the time too. Here's another interesting question: (Q2) what kind of thing are those reasons our beliefs are based on?

Set aside those two specific questions for the moment. I want to ask a more general question about the relationship between the two questions.

    (Q3) Is there a presumption in favor of Q1 and Q2 receiving the same answer?

If the answer to Q3 is 'yes', it opens the way for this type of argument (where 'K' is a placeholder for whatever the correct kind is):

  1. If epistemic reasons are Ks, then practical reasons are Ks.
  2. Epistemic reasons are Ks.
  3. Therefore practical reasons are Ks.

So what's the answer to Q3?

______________
P.S. If you're wondering, "What type of reasons does he mean, normative or motivating?" I'd say, "motivating," though I really don't like that terminology.

23 Replies to “Practical and Epistemic Reasons

  1. Thanks, Mark. Yes, Q3 definitely opens the way to that argument just as well as the one I mentioned in the post.
    (In fact, I intended to include a “vice versa” remark, but I forgot, so I’m glad you brought it up.)

  2. Well, since you are talking about motivating reasons, I guess in both cases the relevant kind must be ‘mental state,’ so one might say that the answer to Q3 must be yes. But that doesn’t seem very interesting, since it simply follows from the definition of ‘motivating reason.’ (And I suppose there can be different kinds of mental states . . . )
    If we were talking about normative reasons then I would have a greater temptation to answer no to Q3, since I take it that reasons for belief are determined by the fact that beliefs ought to track the truth, whereas reasons for action are determined by the fact that actions ought to track value (or the good, or something like that). This seems to suggest that there is some deep difference between them, though whether this amounts to a difference in kind is not at all clear to me. It might only be a difference with respect to their behavior.
    In both cases the difficulty in answering the question seems to stem from the difficulty in knowing what the word ‘kind’ is supposed to mean. Frankly, I sometimes think we’d be better off if we stopped using that word altogether.

  3. Troy,
    I happen to agree that motivating reasons are mental states, but I don’t think it’s a definitional matter.
    You’re right that ‘kind’ might be too broad. I should give a couple examples of what I had in mind. We might replace ‘K’ with ‘mental states’ (or ‘mental events’) or ‘nonmental facts’ or ‘nonmental states of affairs’ or ‘propositions’ or ‘properties’ or ‘relations’. There might be other candidates.

  4. Hi John,
    Interesting post! Here’s one view you could have according to which motivating reasons for action and motivating reasons for belief come out to be the same kind of things — namely, beliefs.
    Consider the example Parfit uses in introducing the distinction between motivating and normative reasons in his “Reason and Motivation”. I falsely believe the hotel is on fire, and I jump into the canal. As Parfit notes, my motivating reason was provided by my false belief that the hotel is on fire. (I have no normative reason to jump into the canal since my belief is false – the hotel isn’t on fire. But were the hotel I fire, I would have a normative reason to jump into the canal.)
    Now it seems as though there is a theoretical analogue to this. Suppose again that I falsely believe the hotel is on fire, and, for this reason, I believe the temperature has increased in the hotel. My motivating reason for this belief is provided by my false belief that the hotel is on fire. (I have no normative reason for believing the temperature has increased since the hotel is not actually on fire. But were it on fire, I would have a normative reason to believe the temperature has increased.)
    Motivating reasons for action, and motivating reasons for belief, are both provided by beliefs. (And normative reasons for action, and normative reasons for belief, are both provided by facts.)
    I’m not sure whether this amounts to an answer to Q3. But I think it is at least one view according to which practical and epistemic reasons come out to be the same kind of thing.
    John

  5. Thanks, John! I like the examples, and I think the view you present is attractive.
    Maybe this is just a minor verbal issue, but on the view you present, are the beliefs supposed to be the reasons, or do the beliefs just provide the reasons?

  6. I’m not sure. Parfit uses the “provided by” formulation in discussing both normative reasons (provided by facts) and motivating reasons (provided by beliefs). But it seems to me that not much would hinge on this: we could just as easily say that our normative reasons are facts, and motivating reasons are beliefs. But I don’t know…

  7. I am not entirely clear as to which of the following two principles, if any, you are interested in.
    (1) For all K, all epistemic reasons are Ks iff all practical reasons are Ks
    (2) For some K, all epistemic reasons are Ks iff all practical reasons are Ks.
    As some have already noted above, it seems plausible that epistemic and practical reasons fall under various kinds and that there is some very general kind under which both sorts of reasons fall and therefore (2) seems to be true, but this is likely to be uninteresting. So is it (1) you are interested in or do you think the truth of (2) is non-trivial (I’m not sure it is).

  8. Gabriele,
    Well, it’s more like 2, except that it can’t be just any old kind, as you noted.
    I had in mind something like one of the following categories: mental states/events, propositions, facts, properties/relations, and states of affairs.
    If we restrict ourselves to those categories, what do you think about Q3? Would it be surprising if, say, epistemic reasons turned out to be mental states whereas practical reasons turned out to be nonmental facts?

  9. I like to think of reasons as properties. For example, the instability of the bridge is a reason not to cross it. This might seem less plausible in the case of motivating reasons, but even here I think we can say instability is a reason not to cross the bridge, so long as the person believes the bridge is unstable.
    I haven’t thought much about epistemic reasons, but I don’t see why they couldn’t be properties too.

  10. I’m not going to have much of an argument but my answer to Q3 would be that yes, there is a presumption. I would also be externalist about both reasons. I guess I understand the question of what the reasons are as the question what counts in favour of beliefs in the theoretical case and in favour of desires, intentions, and actions in the practical case. I think there is a general question of what can count in favour of attitudes be they beliefs or desires. It seems like a good presumption that they would be similar sorts of things. Maybe this is false but I would like to hear an argument why.
    In the theoretical case, I would say that these are some of the other things we know or rationally believe to be the case. This would not make these reasons beliefs themselves but rather facts or states of affairs believed. These very same things could, in my view, count in favour of practical attitudes as well. And motivating reasons, were the things that the agent saw counting in favour of her actions, so they wouldn’t be beliefs either.
    But that’s just the view without no argument. I do hope Alex takes part in this discussion as he has written interesting stuff on this very topic of whether there are good arguments of the form you suggest.

  11. Campbell, I think one cause for concern about motivating reasons being mind-independent properties is that we can be motivated in mistaken ways.
    If I don’t cross the bridge because I think it’s unstable, but the bridge is actually perfectly stable, it’s odd to say that the instability of the bridge was my reason for not crossing. This is the kind of case where we are moved to say that my false belief in the bridge’s instability was my motivating reason.

  12. Neil, in the case you describe, I wouldn’t say your reason was ‘the instability of the bridge’. There’s no such thing if the bridge is in fact stable. But your reason might still be instability, a property which you believed to be instantiated by the bridge.

  13. (Jussi is too kind to me, but I will make a couple of points)
    This is an interesting topic!
    1) As has been said, a lot hinges on “kind” here. If reasons for beliefs are other beliefs, and reasons for actions are desires, then are these the same or different kinds? They are both mental states, but they have different directions of fit, and so on.
    2) Relatedly, you might have to first get things sorted within the category of practical reasons (and possibly epistemic reasons, though I’m not aware of an analogous issue there). Some (McDowell, Nagel) think that you are sometimes motivated by beliefs, and sometimes motivated by desires. If there’s no unity within practical reasons, then that suggests that it will be hard to find unity across practical and epistemic reasons.
    3) Towards the end you suggest that you’re talking about motivating reasons (though you dislike the terminology). But you might well think that one large difference between practical and epistemic reasons is that only in the latter case is motivation occuring at all. It seems odd to say that we are motivated to hold true beliefs.
    4) The more general issue here seems to be this: Which properties should we expect practical and epistemic reasons to have in common? The answer to that, I take it, will be partly determined by what the distinction is between these kinds of reason in the first place. So perhaps that’s a good place to start any answer to these questions.
    I think there’s a whole lot more that can be said here, but I’ll leave it there.

  14. I am very tempted to answer Q3 positively.
    Wrt Alex’s point (2), for example, I think one can safely draw analogous distinctions for epistemic reasons. Some beliefs based on wishful thinking seem to be based at least partly on desires rather than only beliefs.
    As far as I can see one can defend the view by arguing that epistemic reasons are just one kind of practical reasons (the practical reasons that concern our epistemic actions and decisions). How does that sound?

  15. Alex,
    Thanks for weighing in.
    On point 1, I think mental state (or event) would be the right level of specificity, so the differences between beliefs and desires could recede into the background. But I’m willing to foreswear ‘kind’ talk and just cast the question in terms of the categories I mentioned earlier: mental states vs. propositions vs. nonmental facts/states of affairs, etc. Is there a presumption that if practical reasons are, say, nonmental states of affairs, then so are epistemic reasons?
    On point 3, I think it’s more natural to talk of acting and believing “for” or “based on” reasons. There’s clearly no problem talking about believing based on reasons.
    Gabriele,
    I agree with your point about wishful thinking. I can report, though, that over the years I’ve met resistance from people on this. They don’t like calling the desire or wish a “reason,” but they are more willing to say it forms part of the belief’s basis.
    Your second point interests me. Forming beliefs is something you do. Performing actions is something you do. So, in a broad sense, both are doings–both are forms of conduct. So that makes it all sound very practical. (In effect, this might be one way of expressing the view that epistemology is, at bottom, really just a branch of ethics. Though that might go beyond what you intended.)

  16. John,
    Interesting post. I think there’s a presumption in favor of Q1 and Q2 receiving the same answer. Suppose I reason as follows:
    (1) He’s coming to get me (believed by me).
    (2) I don’t want him to get me (believed by me).
    (3) my only hope is to kick him in the shins (believed by me).
    (C) I ought to kick him in the shins (believed by me).
    I guess that’s a piece of theoretical deliberation since the conclusion is belief. I don’t think that if I intended/acted in accordance with my ought judgment, the elements of practical deliberation would have been different. It seems to me (on the basis of introspection) that practical deliberation would run like this:
    (1) He’s coming to get me (believed by me).
    (2) I don’t want him to get me (believed by me).
    (3) my only hope is to kick him in the shins (believed by me).
    (C) I kick him in the shins (Or, I intend to kick him in the shins–I never know whether practical deliberation terminates with an action or intention).

  17. cmlittlejohn, sounds like an attitude. An attitude is something like a cognitive and emotional relation to a conceivable object that influences our behavior. Here is an example:
    I believe the hotel is on fire (the hotel actually is), I feel afraid of burning alive, I jump out of the window into a canal.
    The first example says something about an attitude towards burning alive.
    You can have attitudes towards not real things, like Unicorns.
    I think Unicorns are not real, I feel affection for Unicorns, I will study books about Unicorns.
    It’s a ‘belief + emotion = behavior’ kind of thing. Psychologist have theories about exactly how this works and it’s far from settled, according to my professor.

  18. Clayton,
    That’s clever, thanks. So if we ask why there’s a presumption, you’d point to how reasoning proceeds the same way in both cases, whether it concludes with action or intention/belief. The concluding state’s direction of fit matters not.
    I guess someone might say this doesn’t give us a complete explanation of the presumption, since reasoning doesn’t exhaust the role of reasons. But it’s still a good start.

  19. John,
    This is probably because they are conflating the descriptive question with the prescriptive question. (What causes me to buy a lottery ticket is my belief that I have a good chance of winning the lottery, which in turn is based only on my desire to win the lottery. Of course the fact that I desire to win the lottery is not a good reason for thinking that I have a chance of winning the lottery but it is still the reason why I happen to believe that I have a chance of winning it.)
    As for your point of epistemology as a branch of ethics, I d not feel this is the correct way of looking at it. Rather I think that if you conceive of rationality as purely instrumental, so that it is rational for you to do X only if doing X is the best way to achieve your aims, then what is epistemically or morally rational is just what is rational for you to do given that you have certain epistemic (e.g. the truth) or moral (e.g. the good) aims.
    (Sorry I wrote this really quickly so I hope it makes sense)

  20. John,
    “On point 3, I think it’s more natural to talk of acting and believing “for” or “based on” reasons. There’s clearly no problem talking about believing based on reasons.”
    I had this thought too. But then I decided I wasn’t sure if it held up to scrutiny. It still seems true that when we act on reasons, we are motivated by them. So why is it that in the practical case that we are happy to move between “based on” and “motivated by” as though they were synonymous, but not in the epistemic case?

  21. Alex, I think we’re willing to move between them in the epistemic case too. Each of these sounds fine:
    (D) “What in the world motivated you to do that?”
    (B) “What in the world motivated you to believe that?”

Comments are closed.