State-given reasons not to believe

According to a common view, the difference between the “right” kind of reasons that support the distinctive rationality of belief, intention, or other attitudes, and the “wrong” kind of reasons that do not, is that the former are “object-given” reasons while the latter are “state-given” reasons. As I shall argue here, this view is false: it is open to some simple counterexamples.

In this post, I shall explain why the reason that explains why it is irrational to believe Moore-paradoxical propositions (like the proposition that you might express by uttering a first-person present-tensed sentence of the form ‘p and I don’t believe that p’) is a state-given reason, even though it is a reason of “the right kind”. (In a later post, I shall explain why our reasons not to have intentions that would frustrate their own realization are similarly “state-given”.)

Derek Parfit distinguishes between “object-given” and “state-given” reasons as follows (“Rationality and Reasons”, pp. 21f.)

Of our reasons to have some desire, some are provided by facts about this desire’s object. These reasons we can call object-given. … Other reasons to want something are provided by facts, not about what we want, but about our having this desire. These reasons we can call state-given.

This distinction appeals to a non-standard notion of a fact’s being “about” something. In the notorious “strike of the demon” case (discussed by Rabinowicz and Rønnow‐Rasmussen), surely it is a fact “about the demon” that if you admire the demon, then your admiration of him will save the world? In general, surely any fact that cannot be stated without referring to x is a fact “about” x.

Let us take a different approach, then, by using the standard notion of a fact’s being “about” something. Then we can give the following definitions:

“State-given reasons” for you to have attitude A towards object o are provided by facts about how things would be if you had attitude A towards object o; “object-given reasons” for you to have this attitude A towards o are provided by facts about o that are constitutively independent of all such facts about how things would be if you had this attitude A towards o.

Now, consider a Moore-paradoxical proposition – that is, a proposition of the sort that you might express by uttering a first-person present-tensed sentence of the form ‘p and I don’t believe p’. It is clear that it cannot rational for you to believe it. But why is it irrational? The reason that explains why it is irrational to believe this proposition will clearly be a reason of the “right” kind. But what is this reason?

The reason is clearly not that there is anything problematic about the proposition itself. The proposition that you might express by saying ‘p and I don’t believe that p’ might be true; and it might be strongly supported by your evidence. (Indeed, it might have arbitrarily high probability given your evidence. Imagine, for example, that you have just acquired irrefutable evidence that p, and a seemingly infallible oracle has told you that you would never believe that p.) So it is hard to see how there can be any object-given reasons not to believe this proposition.

The reason why you should not believe this proposition does not depend on any features of the proposition itself; it depends on what things would be like if you believed the proposition. Specifically, if you were to believe the proposition, then the proposition would not be true – even if in fact (given that you don't believe the proposition) it is true. (Indeed, if you believed the proposition, then you would be in a position to see that it is not true.) But this is a fact about what things would be like if you had this attitude towards this proposition; it is not a fact about the proposition itself that is independent of facts of that kind. Thus, this fact is a state-given reason not to believe it.

But it seems to be this reason that makes it the case that I am rationally required not to hold this belief. So, some facts about what it is rational to believe depend on state-given reasons. Not all reasons of the “right” kind are object-given reasons.

5 Replies to “State-given reasons not to believe

  1. Hi Ralph,
    I agree that it’s irrational for you to believe the relevant proposition and that there’s the right kind of reason not to believe it. I’m curious about the test, though, for determining whether a reason is state-given or not. If you thought that the fundamental norm of belief is a knowledge norm and noted that the relevant proposition isn’t knowable, would the fact that you couldn’t know whether p count as an object-given reason or a state-given reason?
    Does the relevant reason count as state-given because part of the reason why you couldn’t know the relevant p is that part of the explanation of p’s unknowability has to do with the belief condition on knowledge and the relationship between meeting that condition and the truth-conditions for the relevant proposition?

  2. I wonder if some higher-order defeaters (such as the belief that I may be hallucinating) count as state-given reasons to suspend. So, for example, I may believe in t1 that there is a dog running out there and learn at t2 that probably there was drug in my coffee, so that not it seems rational for me to suspend about whether there is a dog running out there. Would the (right) reason for me to suspend here be a state-give reason? Maybe so: If I believe that there is a dog running there I may be holding a false belief.

  3. Thanks, Clayton and Luis!
    1. Clayton —
    I have no real interest in defending any particular version of the object-given / state-given distinction, since I think this distinction has no theoretical importance. So in my post I deliberately gave a very narrow interpretation of “state-given” reasons, and a very broad interpretation of “object-given” reasons. I wanted to argue that even on this very narrow interpretation of state-given reasons, there are state-given reasons not to believe. (A fortiorti, there will also be state-given reasons on any more expansive interpretation of what they are.)
    On this narrow interpretation, a fact about the proposition that p only counts as a state-given reason for you to believe (or not to believe) p if it is fact that can be stated by a counterfactual of the form “If you believed that p, then q“. The fact that it is unknowable that p seems not to be fact of this sort. So it doesn’t look as if it is a state-given reason. But who cares? The whole object-given / state-given distinction has no importance in my view…
    2. Luis —
    First, as I just said in reply to Clayton, I’d like to emphasize that I was deliberately using a very narrow interpretation of state-given reasons, in order to undermine the view that all state-given reasons are of the “wrong kind” as effectively as possible.
    However, even on more expansive interpretations of what “state-given reasons” are, I believe that it is possible to interpret higher-order defeaters as “object-given”. Suppose that there is some probability function that captures how strongly the believer’s evidence supports all the propositions that are under consideration. (It could be a Williamson-style evidential probability function or something more subjective; it won’t matter for our purposes.) This probability function could give a low conditional probability to There is a dog running out there conditional on the supposition that There was a drug in my coffee. So it would be possible to interpret this as an object-given reason against belief (though again, I admit that since I don’t think the object-given / state-given distinction has any importance, I don’t think it really matters how this reason is classified).

  4. Hi Ralph
    I was wondering whether a simpler case would do, and if not why not. That a Dutch book could be created against you seems like a good reason not to have various sets of credences. This seems like a state-given reason – it’s based on what would happen (you’d lose) if you had those credences. This reason also explains why it is irrational to have those sets. Yet, I don’t have a clear intuition that this reason is a wrong kind of a reason not to hold the given sets of credences.

  5. Thanks Jussi!
    That’s an excellent point: everyone who accepts that the fact that certain credences make the believer vulnerable to a Dutch book is what explains why it is irrational to have those credences is also committed to accepting that there are “state-given” reasons against having certain beliefs.
    As a matter of fact, I’m not convinced that the fact that a Dutch book can be made out against anyone with these credences really is what explains why these credences are irrational (at least if these credences are thought of as what I call “theoretical credences” as opposed to “practical credences”). But as an ad hominem point, what you say seems quite right!

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