A recently influential idea in the
philosophy of normativity is reasons primitivism. Reasons primitivists
hold that we can give no account of what it is for some consideration to be a
(normative) reason. At most we can say that reasons are considerations that count
in favour (or against) some response, or that when there is reason to do
something, there is something to be said
for doing that thing. In this post (which is intended in the spirit of Dave and
Dave’s request for half-baked ideas…) I want to raise a worry about this view.
While reasons are considerations which
count in favour, it does not seem that all considerations that count in favour
are reasons. For example, it seems that the fact that being tall makes it easier to see bands at concerts counts in favour of being tall. But I don't think we should say that this is a reason to be tall. Reasons are the sorts of things which can justify or make rational. But being tall is not the kind of thing which can be rational or justified. Similarly, if I would enjoy the film, then that seems to be something to be said for seeing the film. This seems true even if it is not possible for me to see the film. By contrast, if it's not possible for me to see the film, there seems to be no reason for me to do so.
These examples suggest that there are
certain necessary conditions on reasons which do not apply to favouring as
such. For instance:
is a reason for S to A only if A-ing is a type of action or attitude.
is a reason for S to A only if S can A.
Others – including some reasons
primitivists – have suggested further conditions on reasons. For example, some
is a reason for S to A only if S can A for the reason that R.
is a reason for S to A only if S can know that R is a reason to A.
Again, neither of these conditions apply to
favouring. Thus to borrow an example from Mark Schroeder, if Nate loves
successful surprise parties but hates unsuccessful surprise parties, then the
fact that there is a surprise party at home counts in favour of Nate’s going
home. But it is not a reason for which Nate could go home. Nor could Nate know
that this fact is a reason for him to go home.
Is it legitimate for reasons-primitivists
to endorse conditions of this sort? On the face of it, such conditions appear
puzzling. In general, necessary connections require some sort of explanation. A
standard way to explain a necessary connection is by appealing to the nature of
one of the notions or properties involved. But reasons primitivists don’t seem
to be able to do this. There is nothing in the notion of a favourer which
supports these conditions. But reasons primitivists claim that this is all
there is to the notion of a reason. So it is unclear how reasons primitivists
can endorse these conditions. However, if reasons primitivists cannot endorse
conditions of this sort, that seems to undercut the plausibility of the view,
insofar as at least some such conditions seem highly plausible.