I very much love Michael Smith’s recent paper “A Constitutivist Theory of Reasons: Its Promise and Parts” (Law, Ethics and Philosophy 2013, also available on his website). One thing that strikes me about this paper is that, whilst discussing Parfit’s views on practical reasons, Smith seems to also create a powerful objection to the buck-passing views of value, which at least to me seems original and something that hasn’t been discussed in the vast buck-passing literature before. So, what I want to do below is to outline this argument briefly and then introduce some of the ways this argument could be resisted. For what it’s worth, my own commitment to buck-passing might be getting weaker because of this argument.
Here’s the rough outline of the argument:
Premise 1: No equivocation thesis.
We are not equivocating when we talk about reasons for beliefs and reasons for final desires. Corollary: if we give a reductive account of the concept of reasons in either one of the domains, then we have to accept the same reductive account of concept of reasons in the other domain.
Humean/Lewisian view of reasons for belief: the concept of reasons for belief can be reductively analysed in terms of the concepts of entailment and truth. Hume himself thought that a fact is a reason for belief only if that fact entails the truth of the proposition believed, which would mean that there are only deductive reasons for belief. But, following Lewis, we can also understand inductive and abductive reasons in a somewhat similar fashion. We can think that the fact that p is a reason for S to believe q reduces to the fact that, in those possible worlds in which S believes that q on the basis of p, the fact that p removes all of the other possibilities except for q that the subject isn’t properly ignoring.
Premises 1 and 2 mean that the concept of finally desiring something must be analysable at least in some way in terms of entailment and truth, or otherwise we would be equivocating.
Consequence of Conclusion 1:
The Inheritance Thesis. It seems like the only relevant truths, in terms of which we could understand the concept of reasons for finally desiring things, are truths about what is finally good. This would mean that a consideration is a reason for finally desiring something in virtue of being a consideration that entails the truth of the proposition that the thing in question is finally good. Smith calls this the inheritance thesis because the considerations that are reasons for final desires inherit their reasonhood from supporting the truth of the theses that the objects of these desires are finally good.
Inheritance thesis rules out buck-passing. The buck-passing theory of value must be false because it is incompatible with the Inheritance Thesis. Buck-passers want to understand final value in terms of the reasons there are for desiring the given object. If this is the case, then the reasons for the final desires for the object could not be reduced to being considerations that entail the truth of the proposition that the object is finally good (in the way Inheritance Thesis claims) because as Smith puts it ‘this would get the order of explanation wrong’. And so, because we have reason to believe the Inheritance Thesis on the basis of Premises 1 and 2 we have to give up the buck-passing account of value.
What can we do in response to this argument? It seems to me initially that the premise 1 seems plausible and it would be a significant cost to assume ambiguity here. It also looks like the argument has a valid form
I am less certain about the premise 2. It means that all reasons for belief are epistemic reasons – reasons that count in favour of the beliefs’ truth. If there are pragmatic reasons for belief, then all reasons for beliefs cannot be reduced in the Humean/Lewisian fashion. Smith himself says that the price of giving up the premise 2 for the buck-passer would be that then you would have to think that we cannot explain what it is for a consideration to be a reason for belief, which would beggar belief. But, can there be no other explanations of reasons for belief that would accommodate pragmatic reasons for belief and be compatible with buck-passing?
I also have some concerns about the Inheritance Thesis. What if we accept with Smith that reasons for final desires have to be analysed in terms of some truths, but deny that these truths must be truths about what is of final value? Could we not rely on oughts here? What if to be a reason for a final desire is to be a consideration that supports the truth of the thesis that you ought to desire that thing? In this case, buck-passers could still understand value in terms of reasons.
I finally have some weaker worries about the Conclusion 2 and the incompatibility of the Inheritance Thesis and Buck-Passing, but I’m less certain about how to formulate these concerns. I do accept that explanations are asymmetric. If p explains q then it cannot be that q explains p. If reasons are explained in terms of value, then value cannot be explained in terms of reasons.
However, what if there is no explanatory or conceptual priority here? What if reasons and values are on a par (in the same way as perhaps truth and meaning are)? In that case, it seems to me like something like the inheritance thesis (A consideration is a reason for final desire for X consists of this consideration supporting the truth that X is finally good) and the buck-passing view (For X to have final value consists of there being considerations that are reasons for finally desiring X) could be true at the same time. Both would be just indications of the same close relation from different directions. In this case, we would need to give up any claims of explanatory priority and think that these claims both illustrate how these concepts are related. This would fit the lessons from wrong kind reasons debates where it seems difficult to give a non-circular account of what the wrong kind of reasons are.
In any case, I feel like I am clutching at straws. Smith’s argument seems like a powerful new objection to the buck-passing view to me. I would be very interested in hearing what the readers of PEA Soup make of this argument.