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Roles Ground Reasons; so Internalism is False (by Reid Blackman)

Hi everyone, and thanks to PEA Soup for providing this forum and inviting me to contribute.

1. The Issue

Standard theories on normative reasons rarely mention roles* and their attendant reasons and obligations, and when roles are mentioned, they are accorded derivative normative significance.  The particulars of the theories vary wildly, but the general picture they give is as follows: while there are standards for what constitutes a good parent (and a good doctor, friend, citizen, and so on), these standards are not normative, where ‘normative’ means or entails ‘reason-giving’. The standards of a role ground reasons for its members – the standards become normative – only if some other, more foundational, normative conditions are met. So occupying a role need play no important role in a theory of practical reason. But here, I offer arguments in support of the following thesis.

Role Thesis: By virtue of occupying a role, and by that alone, one has reason to do that which is conducive to achieving the ends of that role and obligations to refrain from doing that which defies the ends of that role.

I think the thesis is interesting in its own right, even though it does not make the more robust claim that all normative reasons are grounded in role occupation. For one, if the Role Thesis is true, then internalism about practical reason is false, since a) people occupy roles they have no desire to occupy and b) role-grounded normative reasons persist even when the people in the relevant roles have no desire to act in accord with those reasons.

I’ll begin by considering two objections I bet you already thought of: immoral roles and being forced into a role. I’ll then give a positive argument for the Role Thesis.

2. Clearing the Air: Two Objections

“Thieves and Nazis don’t have reasons qua thief or qua Nazi, respectively, to do that which makes them good thieves or Nazis, so the Role Thesis is false. Further, women forced to be wives do not have reasons to do that which makes them good wives by virtue of being wives, so the Role Thesis is false.”

There are a variety of things to say here, but since this is a blog post, I’ll just mention two lines of response to which I’m drawn and that I’d be happy to discuss in comments: we can a) treat the immorality and/or involuntariness of role occupation as disablers, and/or b) argue against the reliability of one or both of these intuitions in particular. At any rate, Humeans will need to answer similar questions about immoral and involuntarily acquired desires (e.g. someone forced or deceived into taking a highly addictive drug), and non-naturalists will need to tell us whether we can have normative reason to involuntarily pursue something of value, so these objections are less about the Role Thesis and more about constraints any account of normative reasons must (allegedly) accommodate.

3. An Argument in Favor of the Role Thesis

I’m going to give a case that I think intuitively supports the Role Thesis, and I’ll argue that denying these intuitions lands the denier in uncomfortable philosophical waters.

The case is that of a deadbeat father – one who is indifferent towards, and does nothing to promote, the welfare of his children, despite his having the ability to do so. He is, I would say, a bad father. But more than this: he is, all else equal (e.g. he does not have greater countervailing reasons relating to, say, being an artist in Tahiti) failing to act on his reasons to care for his children, and he has those reasons by virtue of being a father, full stop.

He has those reasons even if he does not care about his children. In fact, lack of caring is not only not a disabling condition for his having a reason to promote their welfare, but also makes him worse qua father. Not caring about one’s children is a bad-making feature of a father qua father, and it cannot be that one can get out of the reasons and obligations of fatherhood simply by being a bad father (nor by instantiating a bad-making feature of a father). Nor is apathy towards one’s children an exit condition for the role of fatherhood; it is not as if there are only good fathers around since the ones that would be bad simply cease being fathers before they get to be bad ones. Analogous claims apply if he fails to “identify” as a father, however that gets analyzed. One cannot exit the role of father by (intellectually or emotionally) refusing to recognize oneself as a father.

I think these (anti-internalist) intuitions in support of the Role Thesis are robust and reliable, but here is a further argument that pushes someone without these intuitions into troubling philosophical waters.

  1. If C has a normative reason to resent F then F had a reason to do otherwise. [I take resentment to be a form of blaming.]
  2. The children have reason to resent their father.
  3. Thus, the father had reason to do otherwise.

I think the premises are both highly plausible, and denying (2) seems, well, kind of crazy. And I think the reason we think (2) is true supports the Role Thesis. Why do they have reason to resent their father? Because he’s their father and so he’s supposed to care for them. So an internalist will have to deny (1). But denying (1) also seems wrong. For if one accepts (2) but rejects (1), one is claiming that resentment can be justified despite the object of blame not having a reason to do otherwise. But if C can justifiably blame F despite F not even having a normative reason to do otherwise, then whether F can do otherwise is irrelevant to justified blame. Why would F having an alternative possibility matter to whether blame is justified if F has zero normative reasons to take it up if it is possible? So defending internalism would drive one to deny (1) and claim that moral responsibility doesn’t require alternative possibilities, but it cannot be right that affirming internalism entails denying PAP. Or, at the very least, that would be a highly contentious move that requires much further argumentation (e.g. weighing the arguments in support of internalism against the arguments in support of PAP).

Two notes before closing.

First, the deadbeat father case is just one example of a kind of case that has a certain structure, viz. one in which a person occupies a role (through not involuntary actions or through no action at all, e.g. being born in a certain country) that she would like to exit but has not yet exited. Perhaps she signed up for military service and now regrets it, or is the romantic partner of someone she no longer wishes to be with, or she is a citizen in one country and wishes to gain citizenship elsewhere. Still, in all those cases, she has a reason to do what makes members of those roles good members of those roles (e.g. report for duty, not betray the partner, and vote, respectively).

Second, I’ve only gone some (small) way in defending the Role Thesis. One important missing element is an explanation as to why or how the father’s normative reason is grounded in his occupying the role of fatherhood instead of being grounded in some other (non-desire based) way. Part of that explanation, I think, consists in articulating the relation between occupying a role and the instantiation of non-instrumental value. At this point, though, I hope to have shown that the Role Thesis is at least plausible, and theories of practical reason should pay them greater attention.

Ok…let me have it! And thank you for your interest!


* A role, as I use the term, is anything a person can be that has a constitutive function or end. For instance, a mother qua mother has the end of the welfare of her children and is a good mother to the extent that she is effective at pursuing their welfare, a professor qua professor has the education of her students as her end and is a good professor to the extent she is effective at educating them, and so on.

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41 Responses to Roles Ground Reasons; so Internalism is False (by Reid Blackman)

  1. Alex Gregory says:

    Really intresting stuff! But I wonder: Is the resent argument against internalism really that closely related to believing in role-based reasons? I can imagine someone denying that there are role-based reasons, but nonetheless endorsing the general argument against internalism that it cannot make sense of our practices of blame. For example, we might blame people who leave others drowning in ponds, and do so independently of their desires. I think you want to say that this casts doubt on internalism, but it seems to have little to do with the existence of role-based reasons.

  2. David Sobel says:

    Two thoughts: first, what is involved in being a father in your sense? Is it just the relevant genetic contribution? If so, I think we can imagine societies where care is standardly and reliably provided for children not by their biological parents but by lottery or some such. I would say in such a society the biological parent has less or perhaps no reason to especially look out for their offspring and the offspring have less or perhaps no reason to begrudge such a parent. What this shows, to my mind, is that part of what it is to be a parent in the sense you intend is to be the person for whom primary moral responsibility for the welfare of the child falls. And if that is what we mean by parent, then we don’t have to appeal to the role to understand the reason this person has to watch out for their offspring. This is especially true if we are happy, as you seem to be, to allow moral considerations to strongly shape what we think the person has reason to do. Second, if we are going to say that what is moral and immoral strongly shape one’s reasons, as you seem happy to suggest, doesn’t that provide an independent and simpler way to reject internalism?

  3. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Alex – thanks for your question!

    You’re right that one could deny there are role-based reasons while also denying internalism (for the reason that it cannot make sense of blame, or for some other reasons). So why do I include it here? Two reasons.

    First, I think that not only do people generally have the intuition that the father has a reason, but also that, when you consider the justified resentment of the children, people have the intuition that the resentment is justifiably directed at the father for not caring for them, instead of, say, a stranger, *because he’s their father*. So the resent argument is meant to bring out, among other things, the intuition/judgment about what grounds the reason. It is had qua father and not, say, qua moral agent or promisor or desirer or whatever else.

    Second, when I’ve presented the deadbeat father case to others, I often get internalists denying that the father has any reason if he has no appropriate desire. That seems like a pretty theory-driven intuition, though, but rather than simply assert that my intuition is more reliable, and rather than just declare a stalemate, I want to push the internalist by showing that their (theory-driven) intuition about the father case commits them to other things they might not be so happy to be committed to (e.g. the denial of PAP). Further, aside from whether PAP is true (I happen to think it is), it seems wrong for an internalist to commit herself to internalism before assessing the arguments for PAP. So methodologically, unless some particular internalist has already thought through PAP and decided it’s false (and I’m sure some have), one’s commitment to internalism should be weakened or suspended.

  4. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi David – thanks for the feedback!

    As to your first point: I do not think of the role of parent as simply a matter of having a genetic contribution. My view is that the role of parent (and a host of other roles as well, e.g. professor and citizen) is socially constructed. More specifically, the role is constructed in such a way that the role has a constitutive function or end. In the case of parent, the function or end is to take care of one’s children (for a professor it’s to educate one’s students, and so on). It is because of their functional natures that we can evaluate parents as good or bad qua parent.

    It is true that, as you say, “what it is to be a parent…is to be the person for whom primary moral responsibility for the welfare of the child falls.” You proceed to say, though, that this shows that “we don’t have to appeal to the role to understand the reason this person has to watch out for their offspring.” But I don’t see why that follows. It seems to me that if someone asks, “Who is the person for whom primary moral responsibility for the welfare of the child falls?,” one would sensibly reply by, “the parents, because they and they alone occupy the role that has as its constitutive function/end the welfare of their children.” Or perhaps I’m missing the point?

    (There’s a lot to say about how these roles are socially constructed. In a draft I argue against Searle’s view and for a view about how roles acquire their functions that draws from the selected effects theory of function as found in the philosophy of biology. I doubt this matters for the current debate, but I’m happy to discuss it if people want).

    As to your second point: I don’t think I’ve argued that what is moral or immoral strongly shapes one’s reasons. I haven’t argued, for instance, that the morality or immorality of an act plays an explanatory role in whether one has a normative reason for or against it. My view is this: while I think there are what we can call universal moral reasons (that apply to us qua rational agent or person or whatever), there are also the reasons that attach to the roles we occupy. As far as this post is concerned, it is not the requirements of universal morality that shows us what reasons the father has. Occupying the role grounds the reason. If it is a moral reason (which I didn’t claim in the post, but I think it is), I would characterize it as non-universal moral reason. It counts as non-universal because it is grounded in occupying a role not everyone occupies, and it is moral by virtue of the fact that, ceteris paribus, failure to act on it warrants blame. Does that speak to your question?

  5. David Sobel says:

    One version of the thought here might have a non-moralized or non-normativized conception of the role of father and claim that because one occupies that role, one has normative obligations of some type to do stuff. Another version, I now think yours, would say that it is part of what it is to occupy that role that one has normative obligations to do stuff. In that case, I would say, the role does not explain the normative obligations. If we build normative requirements into a role, then I don’t think the role can explain those requirements.

  6. Reid Blackman says:


    Actually, it’s the first of the two conceptions of roles that you presented that is mine. You are certainly right that if we just build normative requirements into the role then they can’t explain those requirements (or at least they can’t justify them). So my view is that roles have functions or ends that determine the standard of evaluation for members of that role and we can, independently of talk about normative reasons, identify someone as occupying the role of father or professor or citizen or whatever, and judge how well they “score” on the father/professor/citizen “test.” Members can be good or bad qua member of the role, and that is admitted once we see roles as having functions/ends. It is then a further, substantive claim that occupiers have normative reasons to do well on those tests, and this is precisely what the role thesis asserts. There is then, of course, a question as to what justifies the assertion, and the main case I’ve presented here has to do with a) an intuition/judgment that the father has a normative reason, and b) the intuition/judgment that he has that reason precisely because he’s a father. There’s then a further need to explain how occupying a role grounds reasons, and for that I think we need an explanation of the connection between occupying the role and instantiating a non-instrumental form of value. If you’re curious about that, I’d be happy to say more.

  7. David Sobel says:

    Perhaps you might explicate your non-moralized conception of the role of a father so we can assess, with it in mind, whether it is thanks merely to occupying that role that the person has the sort of reasons you maintain they have.

  8. Reid Blackman says:

    David – here’s a rough version.

    On the selected effects analysis of function, a token of a type of biological kind has a “proper function” by virtue of previous tokens of that type having been selected for (thus resulting in current tokens). Previous tokens of hearts, for example, were selected for their ability to pump blood, not to make a thumping sound, and so the function of hearts, what they are for, is pumping blood. But you can have malformed hearts that don’t pump blood, in which case, on the selected effects view, it has a function that it performs poorly or not at all. So there are good and bad hearts qua heart, and we determine which are the good ones and bad ones by seeing how well/poorly they perform their function. Of course, no one would say hearts have normative reasons or obligations to pump blood.

    There is a lot more to say about the selected effects account, of course, but for our purposes I’ll just cut to the chase and say that I conceive of roles in a structurally identical way. So members of roles have functions/ends and they can do well/poorly depending on how they perform their function/meet their end. (I use function/end interchangeably because to have a function just is to be for bringing about a certain end/set of effects). Of course, this isn’t the result of natural selection, as with the heart, but the selected effects account only requires differential selection (being selected against competing traits) of some sort, and natural selection is only one sort of differential selection.

    That’s very rough, like I said, but I think you can see from this that nothing about normative reasons or obligations needs to be brought in to understand the function/end of a role (and evaluation of members qua their respective role) any more than they need to be brought in to understand the function/end of a heart (and the evaluation of members of that kind).

  9. David Sobel says:

    So you are just borrowing Millikan here?

  10. Reid Blackman says:

    David – among others (e.g. Neander, Griffiths, Godfrey-Smith, Garson), yes. So I conceive of roles in a way that can be contrasted with how Searle and Thomasson think of them.

  11. David Sobel says:

    I guess now knowing more about how, in principle, you would go about specifying the father role, I find myself quite uncertain about whether, so conceived, fathers have a reason to fulfill that role that they occupy. Partly this is because I find myself quite uncertain about how the historical story would play out in determining the father role.

  12. Reid Blackman says:

    Can you be more specific about what your misgivings might be? Are you worried, for instance, that a Nietzchean style inquiry into the history of the role may make one dubious about the (moral) legitimacy of fatherhood? Perhaps more importantly, do your misgivings center around fatherhood in particular or is it about the (history of) roles in general?

    For what it’s worth (it might not speak to your concerns), the history of the role is only important with regards to fixing the function/end of a role. But if you have no truck with the function/end of a parent to be the welfare of their children (granting that’s what was selected for), why should the history of the role bother you?

  13. David Sobel says:

    I take you to be saying that you have, in principle, a way of specifying the role of being a father and that so specified fathers have reasons to do various things like look out for their kids. We agree, perhaps, that if a father was just understood to be a sperm donor that this understanding of the role would not look normatively significant in all contexts. But that is not your understanding of the role. Your understanding is much much more complicated and epistemically challenging. I do not myself feel I understand the content of your understanding of the role of being a father sufficiently to be at all confident that, so understood, the occupier of that role has significant reason to do things like look after their children in all contexts and as a result of occupying that role.

  14. Reid Blackman says:

    David – the selected effects view is, in part, about how things acquire their respective function. But I might think that, say, hearts, hammers, parents, and marriages (the institution, as contrasted with the role of spouse) have functions in such a way that members of those kinds can be evaluated good/bad qua member of their respective kind while being agnostic about how they acquired their respective functions. I am, for instance, agnostic about how functional artifacts like hammers and computers acquire their respective functions but I’m confident there are good and bad hammers qua hammer. (Perhaps it’s by way of the intentions of the makers, as one popular view has it, or perhaps Neander and Griffiths are right and some selected effects view should be applied to them as well – I just don’t have a view.] So all you really need to do is agree that roles have functions/ends in such a way that members can be evaluated as good/bad qua member of their respective kind; you don’t need to endorse the selected effects account to think that. The alternative, as far as I can see, is to endorse some form of skepticism about the possibility of being a good parent qua parent, professor qua professor (and so on), but that seems pretty implausible to me. Or maybe there’s an alternative I’m not seeing.

  15. David Sobel says:

    I’ll try one more time and then let it rest. Of course people can be evaluated as filling their role well or badly. But there are many different possible understandings of what makes one an occupier of the, for example, father role. One possible such understanding is to be the person who contributed specific sort of genetic material to an offspring. I was claiming that for myself I do not think that understanding of what it is to occupy the father role makes the role such that occupiers of it have reason to, for example, help out especially their own kids. I claimed society could be organized such that occupiers of that role lacked such reasons. But that, you say, is not the best understanding of the father role. Fair enough. You have your own understanding of what makes one an occupier of the father role and it is complicated. For me to assess the claim that it is because one occupies the father role as you understand it one has reason to, for example, help one’s kids, I need more understanding of the specifics rather than schematics for what it is, on your view, to occupy the role.

  16. Reid Blackman says:

    Okay – maybe we’ve been talking past each other a bit. So your concern isn’t with people occupying roles with constitutive standards, but rather with the way in which one comes to occupy it. Your thought, if I have you right, is that if one comes to occupy a role in such and such a way, then occupying it does not (or may not) ground reasons. Put differently, it’s not the view of roles that concerns you, but rather a view about the entry conditions for roles that concerns you. Is that right? If so, I’ll follow up with a reply.

  17. Nick says:

    Hi Reid,

    I had the same rough worries as David, but now that you’ve outlined the culturally embedded selected-effects conception of a role, I have an entirely new concern. That conception is powerful but in no way guarantees that the constitutive standards of a role will line up with our normative intuitions about the role. Your example relies on a set of intuitive standards concerning care for one’s children. But the actual selected-effects story concerning fatherhood (or concerning many other roles) might be a lot murkier.

    For example, if there is a selective environment that is reasonably harsh–as was the environment for most of human history–it is entirely possible that correspondingly harsh, distant or unhelpful fathers produced children that were more able to confront this environment (I am not saying this is actually so, but it is certainly possible and in many cases plausible). Since patriarchal norms govern most past societies, mothers take care of basic needs, and fathers “toughen up” their kids. Those are the roles, those are the effects they are selected for, they generate constitutive standards, end of story.

    If I understand your view, then, many fathers will almost certainly *not* have the reasons we intuitively think they have: they might have reasons to be cold, indifferent, or even absent for long periods of time. So, you need to fill in this gap with an empirical story which shows that the selected-effects actually line up with our intuitions, and I honestly doubt that they will. Think about the role of ‘politician’, for example, which almost certainly has been formed by selection-pressures which favor lying.

  18. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Nick – thanks for the interesting comment!

    1) As regards the cold and distant father in the hostile environment, here’s one way of thinking about it. Suppose that, at least at a general level, actions that are conducive to the welfare of the child is what was selected for and so, if the role thesis is true, fathers have reasons to do that which is conducive to their welfare. If, because of the hostile environment, one does best vis-à-vis one’s child’s welfare by being cold, distant, etc., then that is what one has normative reason to do. So I think the role thesis does predict the intuitions we should have about the case. Do you think, intuitively, that the fathers then had a reason to be “soft” with their children, thus making their children less able to survive/thrive? (I should say that “care for” is ambiguous as I originally used it. When I said that the father has reason to “care for” his children I meant something like “do that which is conducive to their welfare” and not “should have feelings of care for his children).

    (A related point: I think the function of a role can change, just as the function of an institution can. The function of marriage was at one point to keep the peace among warring families (or something like that) and now it’s to preserve romantic love (or something like that). And just as in the biological case, the institution can have vestigial traits, e.g. the woman taking the man’s last name. I think something analogous can be said about roles).

    2) As for politicians, their disposition to lie may very well have been selected for, but we’d have to say what effects those lies brought about that caused them to be selected for in order to think about what the ends of politicians are and whether their lying in some particular case is good or poor functioning qua politician. (Was the disposition to lie selected for (if in fact it was) the effect of keeping the peace? Keeping the status quo? Keeping the powerful in power? Promoting the welfare of the citizens? All of these?)

  19. Reid Blackman says:

    David. In reply to “I need more understanding of the specifics rather than schematics for what it is, on your view, to occupy the role,” I’ll say a little, though I’m afraid it will still be too schematic for your liking.

    What is it to occupy a role? I’d say one occupies a role once the entry conditions have been met so long as one has not also subsequently met the exit conditions. I am skeptical that there is a theory that applies to all roles that specifies necessary and sufficient condition for entry/exit. I’m also not sure that we could fill out the necessary and sufficient conditions for entering/exiting a particular role, e.g. parent or father, but I’d be open to trying.

    I think it’s pretty clear that someone who was kidnapped and had his sperm forcibly extracted does not meet the entry conditions, nor does a charitable sperm donor. But I am equally sure that there are, in our society, people who are deadbeat fathers and a fortiori fathers. So if we are to devise a theory, it would have to respect (at least) those data points. As for the content of the theory, I’m open to suggestions! Here’s one stab at it, though: if a person engages in not involuntary acts the result of which is the production of a child in the context of a society that does little to nothing to ensure the welfare of that child, then that person occupies the role of father. Why? Another stab that is informed by the selected effects view: because there were people in the past in those conditions that did something for the welfare of their offspring and these people and those behaviors were selected for against those that simply engaged in those activities and then just disappeared. (I don’t think this is the right view, incidentally. One objection is that it does not account for fathers who have adopted their children. So there’s more to be said here, but I admittedly haven’t thought very much about formulating a hypothesis on the entry/exit conditions for fatherhood.

    Lastly, I allow, as said in the original post, that there can be disabling conditions. It might be that, for instance, being forced into a role against one’s will (viz. being forced to meet the entry conditions) disables one’s occupying the role from grounding reasons. But that doesn’t threaten the role thesis. One could just as well be a Humean and claim that desires that are acquired against one’s will (e.g. by being forced or deceived into taking a highly addictive drug) disable those desires from grounding reasons.

  20. Nick says:

    Hi Reid,

    Thanks for the interesting reply, these are issues I think about a lot. I agree entirely on functional change, and I think you’re right that there are ways to make the father-story work out right, under the right empirical assumptions. However, I still think the basic problem looms large.

    The politician case is perhaps clearer. If lying has been selected-for because politicians need general approval to stay in power and because lying elicits more approval than truth-telling, then on your view a good politician lies. That’s it. I am not sure why you want to inquire into the particular effects which caused political lying to be culturally adaptive. If the effect is “keeping the powerful in power”, as is very likely the case, then so what? What bearing does this have on whether politicians function well when they lie? I take you to be suggesting that some of these effects will ‘count’, or that they will legitimately ground role-standards, whereas others will not. But in case that’s what you have in mind, I strongly advise against it, since it sneaks a normative intuition in by the back door. Did you have something else in mind, there?

  21. Reid Blackman says:

    Nick – if lying by politicians was selected for some set of effects it brought about, e, then a particular token of lying is an instance of good functioning to the extent that it is conducive to, or constitutive of, bringing about e. It’s worth saying here that a) a trait can be selected for a variety of effects (e.g. the feathers of birds were selected for the effects it had on flight, mating rituals, and regulation of body temperature), and b) a trait can do well qua its function in one respect but poorly in another (e.g. a token feather may do well qua its function to aid in flight but poorly in respect to aiding in a mating display).

    I don’t have the view you strongly advise against, viz. I don’t think some functions “count” while others don’t in the evaluation of tokens of a functional kind.

    It’s worth noting that I don’t have a problem with the empirical facts of what was selected for being contrary to our intuitions about what those functions are. Various ideologies, I think, systematically obscure the truth about, say, an institution’s functions.

    David and Nick: I’m committed to thinking that roles have constitutive functions or ends. The selected effects account of how they have them is the best way I know of for accounting for them. If there is an alternative account of function that explains the functions of roles in a way that allows for malfunction (viz. good/bad members of the kind qua kind), I’m all ears!

  22. Reid,

    Interesting ideas. Three thoughts or questions unrelated to the earlier threads about the father role, etc.:

    1. Is the assumption here that all roles (or all roles that ground non-desire-based reasons) are voluntarily incurred? You talk of exit and entry conditions, and you mention the military volunteer, but what of the conscriptee? Does he have reasons at all to fulfill the soldier role, and if so, are they desire-based? It seems to me that one possible challenge here is a sort of wrong kind of reasons problem: the conscriptee has desire-based reasons to fulfill the role that are unrelated to the ends constituting the role (he doesn’t want to be court martialed, etc.).

    2. If you are assuming that all roles that give rise to non-desire-based reasons are voluntarily incurred, then it looks as if the Role Thesis is downstream from some sort of claim about intentions giving rise to reasons. That wouldn’t make the RT false, but … well, maybe less interesting.

    3. Is ‘moral agent’ a role? (And yes that’s Korsgaard and other constructivists calling!)

  23. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Michael! Thanks for the great questions!

    As for (1): I am not assuming that all roles are voluntarily occupied. The strongest claim I’m willing to endorse here is that so long as the role is not involuntarily occupied, occupying it grounds reasons. One can, for instance, not involuntarily occupy the roles of parent (accidents happen!), sibling, friend, and citizen. What if a person involuntarily occupies a role? As I mentioned in the original post, we might want to treat involuntariness as a constraint or a disabler on all accounts of practical reasons (e.g. a Humean might deny that an involuntarily acquired desire (e.g. someone forced or deceived into taking a highly addictive drug) can ground a reason). Or we might think that even involuntarily occupied roles (or involuntarily acquired desires) still ground reasons. The Role Thesis is compatible with either answer, so defenders of the Role Thesis can disagree on this score. Second, the Role Thesis asserts that at least some reasons are role-grounded. It doesn’t make the more robust claim that all reasons are so grounded, and so one could, in principle at least, adopt a hybrid view according to which the Role Thesis is true and also that desires ground reasons. I’m not inclined to that view.

    As for (2): I agree that it would make the Role Thesis uninteresting. But like I said, I’m not assuming that roles are always voluntarily occupied.

    As for (3): Great question! The Role Thesis is neutral on what roles there are, if any. If there are no roles with constitutive standards that people occupy – if we are wholesale skeptics about good of a kind such that nothing can be good or bad of its respective kind, for instance – then the Role Thesis is false or irrelevant or both. If we are not wholesale skeptics about the existence of roles that people can occupy, then there is a question about what roles there are and what brings them into existence. In the above comments, I’ve endorsed the view that roles are functional kinds and they get their functions in a way that is described by the selected effects account of function, which also, I think, gives us a way of determining whether some functional kind has been created (though I’m open to alternative accounts of function-acquisition so long as they allow for the possibility of malfunction). So now the big question: is ‘moral agent’ a role? Once again, the Role Thesis is neutral on that issue. However, I am tempted by that view, and intend for it to be the topic of future work. (One more point, related to Korsgaard et al.: the way I defend the Role Thesis (both here and in the paper from which this post is drawn) is incompatible with Korsgaard’s general strategy/picture. I do not think, for instance, that the normativity of any role (“particular practical identity,” as she would say) depends for its normativity on the normativity of rational agency (or anything else for that matter).

  24. Nick says:

    Hi Reid,

    Since you asked, I do not take roles to have “constitutive” standards: I think that this is an unfortunate bit of Korsgaardian metaphysics. A bad father is still a father.

    Rather, as a first stab, a role exists when there is a reasonably stable set of beliefs, behavioral expectations and patterns of emotional response shared by a group of people, and when that cluster (or “schema”) is activated by a label or concept with vague entry and exit conditions. If there are role-related reasons for A to X, this is (at least) because of those shared mental states. It is a further question whether A needs to endorse those mental states in some way… I imagine David would say that they do.

    So I entirely agree that roles give reasons, I just think that grounding those reasons in selected-effects puts too much conceptual distance between the account and our intuitive expectations. The best politicians do not lie, and this is so whether or not many of them have managed to successfully hoodwink us for millennia.

  25. Reid Blackman says:

    Nick – I have a number of questions about your view, but I’ll stick to the one that seems most relevant to this thread: On your view, how do we get standards of evaluation for role members qua role member? Are they just the “behavioral expectations” you mentioned?

    You characterized my view as one according to which the reasons are grounded in selected effects. That’s not the way I would characterize it, though. I would say that role members have non-instrumental reason to do what makes them good members of their respective role qua role member. As regards grounding, I would say that their occupation of a role makes it the case that their actions can stand in a constitutive relation to a non-instrumental form of value: good of a kind. (This is part of the explanation I referred to at the end of the original post). There’s a further question about what determines standards for role members qua role member, and I give a selected effects account, but as I see it, one could give a different kind of account while leaving the rest of the view in tact.

    I see three points where you can get off the train, so to speak: i) you can disagree that there are standards of evaluation for role members qua role member, ii) you can agree that there are such standards but deny that occupying a role with those standards grounds reasons, or iii) you can agree that those standards ground reasons but disagree with the selected effects account of where those standards come from. Does that seem right? If so, where do you get off the train?,

  26. Simon Keller says:

    Hi Reid. Really interesting argument, nicely made, and sorry to be coming late to the conversation. My concern…

    Insofar as your goal is to give an argument against internalism, I don’t think that you need the role thesis, and I suspect that including the role thesis makes your argument weaker. There’s a good case for saying that the deadbeat father has reasons to care for his children, and that that’s the case regardless of his particular desires. I don’t think you need to add (and I don’t think it helps) to say that he has those reasons “qua father” or because he occupies a certain role. Maybe there’s another explanation.

    Conversely, if the goal is to support the role thesis, I’m not sure that the deadbeat father example gets you there (though it could be part of the case). If there are other explanations of where the father’s reasons come from, then we can accept the intuition while remaining doubtful about the role thesis.

    Looking at the conversation above, my sense is that the role thesis is very controversial and difficult to get right, but the judgment that the deadbeat father has reasons to care for his kids remains pretty strong regardless.

  27. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Simon – Happy to hear you find the argument interesting, and thanks for the feedback!

    I guess I’m not quite sure where I stand with regard to your concerns. On the one hand, I certainly see where you’re coming from. After all, if I remain neutral on where the reason comes from (whether its from occupying the role or some other non-desire “source”) more people can come on board and see the pressure against the internalist. That’s certainly appealing. But I see three reasons for being explicit about the Role Thesis for dialectical purposes.

    First, I think the internalist would be justified in asking for a plausible explanation of where the reason comes from, and I’m not sure what would constitute a more plausible explanation (but I’m open to suggestions!).

    Second, and relatedly, if that other explanation is something like ‘he’s required to take care of his children by virtue of the dictates of universal morality/moral principles that apply to us qua moral agents,’ then the internalist will balk at this for a number of familiar reasons (e.g. the suspicious metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions of that claim). On this front, I think role occupation is a superior explanation, since we know people occupy roles, there are good and bad parents qua parents (and qua friend, philosopher, citizen, and so on), and no one is concerned with a spooky metaphysics or epistemology on these fronts. So the internalist can’t run their standard ‘externalism makes no sense/isn’t metaphysically respectable’ line in reply to the argument.

    Third, even if I don’t explicitly invoke the Role Thesis, I suspect it would be asked anyway what is meant by ‘father’, and in particular, whether I am building anything explicitly normative (viz. reason-giving) into that notion. If I am, I’m begging the question. If I’m not, an internalist can simply reply (as David Sobel did above) ‘I deny that merely standing in some biological relation is sufficient to give him a reason, so if that’s what’s going on here, I deny the intuition, and I deny the intuition that his children have a reason to resent him since they only stand in some biological relation to him.” So I think something needs to be said here about roles that makes it the case that ‘father’, as it is used in the argument, is neither question begging nor construed in such a way that denying the intuition that he has a reason seems plausible.

    Again, you’re right that I could remain silent on where the father’s reasons come from (as long as it’s not desires). But while I think that would get more externalists on board, internalists would remain unmoved.

  28. Marcus Arvan says:

    Hi Reid: Interesting stuff, but I worry it may be question-begging against the internalist. As I am an internalist, the response I find most natural is this: “I know you all think I have reasons to care for my children, and that perhaps you think this because my children resent me. But those just reflect your presumptions about what fathers are supposed to do. I don’t care a bit about how you all understand fatherhood, or what my children resent. I don’t see any reason to care, given that I just want offspring to carry on my name.” As an internalist, I think that in order to establish that an agent actually has a reason (as opposed to our simply thinking or wanting them to have a reason, as third-personal observers), we need to engage with the person’s interests–as those are the things they care about. But in that case appealing to roles to refute internalism seems to me to beg the question against my position, appealing to premises as internalist that I reject.

  29. Marcus Arvan says:

    Just to clarify, the response I put in the above quotation is intended as response that, as an internalist, I think is most natural for the deadbeat father to give. It’s not my own attitude about fatherhood. 🙂

  30. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Marcus – thanks for the comment!

    First, I don’t see how the argument is question-begging. I’ve offered a case in which it’s highly intuitive that the father has a reason. If the internalist wants her theory of practical reason to accommodate highly intuitive claims, then the internalist should see denying that he has a reason as a cost. As some would put it, internalism loses “plausibility points.” However…

    Second, the internalist is certainly welcome to claim, in reply to the deadbeat father argument, either that it’s not intuitive, it is intuitive but the intuition is not reliable, and/or that the theoretical virtues of internalism warrant concluding that, whatever our intuitions, the father has no reason. (The third claim seems to be what you’re asserting in your comment). In that case, the internalist has to face the second argument presented, in which I argue that denying the intuition about the father, while certainly a logically coherent claim, commits the internalist to denying both a) PAP and b) the claim that being an appropriate object of blame entails having had reason to do otherwise, which i) an internalist might not want to concede and ii) places new argumentative burdens on the internalist qua internalist, viz. provide arguments in support of denying (a) and (b).

    So again, I don’t see how any of this is question-begging. The internalist can coherently reply, in the face of all this, that internalism is true, PAP is false, that being an appropriate object of blame does not entail having had reason to act otherwise, and that the internalist now has new argumentative burdens. Would that be the way you want to go?

  31. Marcus Arvan says:

    Hi Reid: Thanks for your reply! Here are my thoughts.

    I don’t think it’s highly intuitive that the deadbeat father has a reason to care for his children. I think it is only intuitive if one is already in the grip of an externalist theory of reasons (which, I admit, many philosophers are nowadays–but see below). I think the reply I attribute to the deadbeat father is an entirely natural and intuitive response, and indeed, one that deadbeats make all the time in real life (“You think I should care about my kids. I see no reason to, I could care less!”). Consequently, I still worry that the claim that it is intuitive that they do have a reason–despite their (and my) thinking the opposite–is to either beg the question or commit an ad populum, discounting the intuitions of people we don’t like (deadbeats) in favor of the intuitions of people we do like who have a vested interest in the issue (viz. we have reasons to *want* deadbeats to have reasons).

    On a related note, although I don’t find the claim about the deadbeat having reasons intuitive, I also don’t think internalists should be concerned with making sense of intuitive claims–any more than physics should aim to make sense of people’s intuitions about space and time (which, of course, are systematically false). What matters (or should matter in my view) is not what people find intuitive, but what is actually true. And what is actually true–in a wide variety of parts of human inquiry, from physics to psychology to philosophy–is often counterintuitive. In my view intuitions are simply preconceptions–ones that may be systematically mistaken (and indeed, have been shown to be systematically mistaken in many lines of inquiry). Consequently, what I think we really need is some more objective test of which intuitions are veridical. Although this obviously gets us far afield, I think this can be done in normative practical philosophy, and in a way that supports internalism (see But I won’t bore you with that. 🙂 I mention it only because although I recognize that you are using a common methodology here–appealing to what is “highly intuitive”–there are nevetheless those of us who are skeptical of placing much weight on intuitiveness.

    Finally, as an internalist I don’t think that being an appropriate object of blame provides any reasons for an agent. All I think it does is provide others reasons to blame them. If the agent doesn’t have interests about avoiding blame, then they have no reason to care whether it is appropriate for others to blame them (viz. those others having reasons to blame them). In short, because I think believe all reasons must address people’s interests first-personally, one cannot infer that X has a reason because *others* have reasons to blame them. And think this is perfectly intuitive–as again, it is natural for the deadbeat to reply, “I know you all think–or want–me to have a reason to care for my kids. That’s because you have views and interests about what fathers should do–so of course you think I am blameworthy. But I see no reason at all to care about what you care about. I just want to get on with my life the way I see it, and as far as I am concerned, I have every reason to do so. You have every reason to blame me, I have no reason to care.” This of course sounds terribly selfish, but that’s just the point: as an internalist, I don’t think we get legitimately assert what the people’s reasons are ignoring their own motivational states.

    A quick question: I guess I’m not quite following how you think PAP is relevant here. I very much do subscribe to PAP, but I don’t think it is in any tension with internalism. From your remarks, you seem to want to tie PAP to blame–but again, as an internalist, I don’t think the reasons a person has have anything to do with what others have reasons to blame them for. Am I missing something?

    In any case, thanks again for your reply. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  32. Reid Blackman says:

    Marcus – thanks for this helpful reply. So…

    First, I think we’re at a standoff with regards to whether the father has a reason. You think I have an externalist theory-driven intuition, and I think you have an internalist-driven intuition. However….

    Second, you say my intuitions are not reliable, but you also say that the reply you attribute to the deadbeat father “is an entirely natural and intuitive response.” So I don’t see how you’re not appealing to intuitions because you find them methodologically suspect, but I am. Seems to me we’re both appealing to what’s intuitive, and we have a standoff in this regard. So we turn to the further argument about justified blame…

    Third, in a number of places you’ve had the father assert he doesn’t care, he never will, etc. But i) the father can say whatever he pleases while being completely unaware of how his claim fits into a theory of practical reason and the viability of that theory, so I don’t see why what we can imaging him saying is philosophically relevant, unless ii) your appeal to the father is for the purposes of demonstrating that there’s nothing logically inconsistent or incoherent about internalism. But if it’s the latter claim, I agree with that; I don’t think internalism is a logically inconsistent position. So I don’t see these appeals to what the father can say as is relevant to anything I’m arguing (but perhaps I’m missing the point of appeals to what he can say).

    Fourth, my claim about justified blame was neither that justified blame provides a reason for the father nor that he has a reason to care whether it is appropriate to blame him. (You said, “If the agent doesn’t have interests about avoiding blame, then they have no reason to care whether it is appropriate for others to blame them.”). The claim is, rather, this: the children are justified in resenting their father, and their being justified in blaming him for what he did entails that the father had a reason to do otherwise (which says nothing of his reasons right now, after the misdeeds have been done). This is more than just to have, say, contempt for the person. Blaming them involves, in part, the thought that they should have acted otherwise, and so blame is justified, in part, on the condition that the person had reason to do otherwise. So if someone did not have any reason to treat you better, blaming him/her would be inappropriate. Does that seem wrong to you?

    Fifth, as regards the connection with PAP. Thanks for asking about this because I think I need to think about this more, but here’s the basic idea: As I see things, justified blame tracks the person’s normatively relevant options; it’s tracking what they should and should not have done. If a person had no reason to do otherwise, doing otherwise is not a normatively relevant option to them, and so blaming them would be unjustified. Notice that an option can be normatively irrelevant to a person even though (let’s grant for the same of argument) it’s metaphysically available for them to take up But since justified blame tracks the normatively relevant (as I see things), the merely metaphysically available is not relevant to justified blame. Put differently, alternative possibilities are irrelevant to justified blame.

    On the other hand, as you see things, C can blame F even if F should not have done otherwise; blame does not concern what F had reason to do. But it’s still important that they could have done otherwise for blame to be justified. That’s because…? Well, why would that matter? I just don’t see why it would, which is to say PAP is irrelevant, but I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on this.

  33. Marcus Arvan says:

    Hi Reid: Thanks for your reply.

    The fact that we are at a standoff with respect to our intuitions is precisely why I have concerns about basing arguments on intuitions in cases like this. When people of different sides of a debate have fundamentally different intuitions, appealing to them seems to me a dialectical dead-end. Externalists like yourself come to the table with externalist intuitions, and internalists like me come to the table with strongly internalist ones (for my part, there are few things I could find less intuitive than the idea that blame or social roles provide people with reasons!).

    Now, if the dialectical aim of the argument is modest–such as giving those with externalist intuitions grounds to reject internalism–then fair enough. But I assume you don’t want the argument to be that modest, as you present it as a refutation of internalism. So let us ask what a non-modest refutation dialectically requires. As Rawls once remarked, we seem to have reasons to want arguments to not just preach to the already converted, but instead appeal to premises one’s dialectical opponents are likely to accept. And therein lies my concern here. I have no doubt many externalists might share the intuitions the arguments are based upon here–but how is that a refutation of internalism if internalists fundamentally reject the relevant intuition(s)?

    I gave my intuitions in this case not because I think they are good evidence (I don’t), but instead to simply express the dialectical problem alluded to above. So, for example, suppose we are responding to the deadbeat who responds as I imagine (who says, “I know you think it is appropriate to blame me, but I see no reason to care”). It seems rather disappointing to say either, “Well, we are an intuitive standoff”, or alternatively, say, “Our intuitions are more widely shared than yours.”

    As you note, if we are to move the debate forward, dialectically, it seems like we have to do much more than that–and it seems from your remarks that you and I broadly agree on how to move forward: with a well-developed theory of practical reason (you write, “the father can say whatever he pleases while being completely unaware of how his claim fits into a theory of practical reason and the viability of that theory”). But here’s the problem. I defend an internalist theory of practical reason using principles of theory-selection which explicitly discount controversial intuitions, and also (or so I argue) entail that a person has no reasons to care for X if they have no motivational interests regarding X. In other words, I argue that the most viable theory of practical reason gives dialectically strong reasons to reject the kinds of externalist intuitions involved in your refutation.

    Fortunately, I think this points the way forward. The real disagreements between us are metaphilosophical–about the legitimacy of appealing to intuitions, how we should think about practical reason, etc. But, in that case, I think we need to carry out the metaphilosophical conversation. If you have the right metaphilosophy, I should go your way; if I do, you should go my way! 🙂

    This once again arises with your main points about PAP. You write, “The claim is, rather, this: the children are justified in resenting their father, and their being justified in blaming him for what he did entails that the father had a reason to do otherwise.” You then add, “justified blame tracks the person’s normatively relevant options.” As an internalist, I honestly find both of these central claims highly unintuitive. I do not find it plausible that because the children are justified in resenting him, the father had a reason to do otherwise. I think, if he has no interests related to their resentment, he has *no* reason to do otherwise. And I don’t think justified blame has anything to do with a person’s normatively relevant options: I think only a person’s own motivational interests do that.

    So, once again, we have a dialectical stalemate. Thus, it seems, what we really need to discuss–if we are to make any headway with each other (as individuals on opposite sides of the dialectic)–are the metaphilosophical issues.

  34. Marcus Arvan says:

    As an aside, thanks so much for engaging in this back and forth. I really appreciate you sharing your argument and the opportunity to discuss/debate these issues with you!

  35. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Marcus – As regards your aside, it’s my pleasure! And I appreciate your taking the time to engage in the back and forth as well.

    As for your larger comment: I agree that simply stating one’s intuitions isn’t sufficient, but I don’t think our disagreement is as yet metaphilosophical. I take the following to be a completely legitimate way of proceeding, and I’d be surprised if you disagree. Suppose I affirm (as an expression of intuition) X and you affirm (also as an expression of an intuition) not-X. And then I give an argument for thinking that not-X entails not-Y, but you affirm Y. If I’m right that not-X entails Y, I’ve put you in a tough position: either you have to affirm X so as to avoid not-Y, or you have to relinquish Y.

    Applying that point to this case, X = ‘the father has a reason’ and Y = PAP. You’ve said you affirm not-X and Y, and I’ve argued that not-X entails not-Y. So either you have to relinquish PAP or affirm that the father has a reason. And my argument for not-X entailing not-Y was this: “On the other hand, as you see things, C can blame F even if F should not have done otherwise; blame does not concern what F had reason to do. But it’s still important that they could have done otherwise for blame to be justified. That’s because…? Well, why would that matter? I just don’t see why it would, which is to say PAP is irrelevant. But the claim that PAP is irrelevant is to deny PAP, since affirming PAP is to say it is most certainly relevant to moral responsibility/blame. So it seems to me you have to say what’s wrong with the argument (not a mere intuition) that not-X entails not-Y, or you have to choose between internalism and PAP.

  36. Marcus Arvan says:

    Hi Reid: Okay, now I am getting the argument (apologies if I have been dense!). Here are a few thoughts.

    PAP holds that an agent is morally responsible for an action only if they could have done otherwise. It thus sets a necessary but not a sufficient condition for moral responsibility.

    First, as an internalist, I want to hold that another necessary condition for moral responsibility is certain pro-social motivations–ones that make most but not all human beings “members of the moral community.” Although the story I have to tell here is long, the short story is that most (but not all) human beings–including most deadbeats–have the relevant prosocial motivations for moral responsibility (true psychopaths are a primary exception). As such, in the kinds of case you discuss roles will ordinarily give reasons, and it will be appropriate to blame the individual for their moral failings, but only because they have the kind of internal motivations that make them members of the moral community–preserving PAP.

    Second, as an internalist I think it is appropriate to blame those who fall outside of the moral community (psychopaths), but only instrumentally (because of the interests we have as third-personal observers), not morally–in which case we can once again retain PAP, since moral evaluation only applies to those with the right internal motivations.

    So, it seems to me, a sophisticated internalist can retain PAP; they just need to tell a compelling internalist story about who is morally responsible and who is not, and why. I think this story can be told, and that the case to be made for it is metaphilosophical–in which case I want to say once again that it is really the metaphilosophical issues we need to discuss.

    Finally (although I don’t think I want to go this direction), I could also imagine an internalist who has no problem at all rejecting PAP–one who wishes to understand moral responsibility purely in terms of different agents’ interests, and defending their account on the basis of theoretical virtues–in which once again we are back at metaphilosophical questions (the theory of relativity is counterintuitive, but its theoretical benefits outweight its counterintuitiveness!).

    In any case, thanks for clarifying the argument – you’ve given we internalists some good stuff to think about!

  37. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Marcus – I agree that PAP sets a necessary but not sufficient condition for moral responsibility. But my challenge to the internalist is that, if you think blame can be appropriate despite the object of blame not having had reason to do otherwise, why should alternative possibilities matter to justified blame? Alternative possibilities don’t seem relevant to justified blame if those alternative possibilities are not ones the agent had reason to/should have chosen. If that’s right, then once the internalist denies that justified blame requires an agent who had reason to do otherwise, the internalist has thereby announced that alternative possibilities are irrelevant. But PAP says (or at least entails) that alternative possibilities are relevant. Thus, the internalist would have thereby denounced PAP.

    In reply, there are three options: a) affirm that justified blame entails the object of blame had reason to do otherwise (which will, on the condition that the children have reason to resent their father, amount to abandoning internalism), b) give up on PAP, or c) give a plausible explanation for why alternative possibilities are relevant to justified blame. If the internalist can’t do (c), then the internalist has to choose (a) or (b). Choosing (a) is complete capitulation, and choosing (b) is to assert the surprising conclusion that internalism entails the denial of PAP and the argumentative burden of showing why it’s false (as Frankfurt examples are intended to do, of course).

    This problem can’t get solved by adding another necessary condition to moral responsibility (e.g. that the person must be a member of the moral community), and that’s because the issue here isn’t what the necessary and sufficient conditions for moral responsibility are. The question is, rather, why alternative possibilities are necessary at all. The explanation I’ve articulated is that one needs alternative possibilities if one is to have reason to do otherwise, and justified blame tracks what people should (not) have done. You don’t want that explanation. But if you can’t provide a plausible internalist friendly explanation for why alternative possibilities matter, you have to choose from (a) and (b), above. And you are right: an internalist can coherently choose (b), and if that’s the way the internalist should go, I have not demonstrated the falsity of internalism, but rather will have shown that the internalist is committed to denying PAP and has the argumentative burden qua internalist of showing why PAP is false.

    (An aside: I have an article called “Why Compatibilists Need Alternative Possibilities,” in Erkenntnis, which argues exactly what the title says. If I’m right there, and I’m right here, then internalism requires being an incompatibilist, which is a very surprising result (counterintuitive but could be true, just as you like it!). Ish Haji has a recently published critical discussion piece of that article, also in Erkenntnis).

  38. Marcus Arvan says:

    Hi Reid: Thanks for your reply. I will have to take a look at your Erkenntnis article, but a couple of quick thoughts.

    As I mentioned in my previous comment, I think sophisticated internalists can do (c) (i.e. tell a compelling internalist story about how alternative possibilities are relevant to morally justified blame). I this can be done by providing a sophisticated defense of blame only being morally appropriate when the object of blame has relevant internal motivational states, and by claiming that when certain internal states are lacking–as in psychopaths–there is no moral blameworthiness (or reasons to do otherwise) at all.

    I think a deadbeat father *can* have a reason to do otherwise and be an appropriate subject of blame…but only if they have the right kind of internal motivational states that make them moral agents, giving them internal reasons to care about social roles and the blame of others. In cases where there is no motivational state (as in the case of the true psychopath), I don’t think they have a reason to do otherwise or are appropriate subjects of moral blame (though I do think purely instrumental non-moral blame can be justified in those cases).

    That, again, is why I think the metaphilosophical issues are relevant here: you and I seem to have very different views about when blame is morally appropriate, when people have reasons to do otherwise, etc. On metaphilosophical grounds, I understand all of these things (including when agents have reasons to do otherwise, when they are proper objects of blame, etc.) from an internalist perspective. The cases where you think an internalist has the trilemma are cases where I think an internalist can either (A) tell a compelling story how PAP applies and how the agent has (purely internal) reasons to do otherwise, or (B) tell a compelling story how PAP doesn’t apply (because the agent doesn’t have the requisite internal states to make them proper subjects of blame or give them any reason to do otherwise).

    In any case, thanks for the discussion – I now have a clearer view of what you think the issue is for internalists!

  39. Reid Blackman says:

    Thanks very much for the discussion, Marcus!

  40. Sean Cordell says:

    Hello Reid

    Thanks to you and everyone for the excellent discussion. I’m going to take a step back in the conversation, sequentially and almost certainly intellectually. Here goes.

    Could I push you a bit on the possibility of involuntariness of role-occupation being a disabler of role-reasons? If I have things right you say, in your original post and later in response to others, that a defender of the Role Thesis can (but doesn’t have to) allow:

    D/C: that involuntary occupation of a role r be a disabler or constraint on the reasons (which would otherwise be) generated by r.

    But I’m not sure the Role Thesis can accommodate D/C. It is plausible in itself, but it also seems to admit plausible counter-examples to the Role Thesis, thereby also granting the reasons-internalist enough to weaken your challenge against her. To attempt to explain, I’m assuming, at least for the sake of argument here, that there are some roles which are quite often involuntarily occupied. If ‘prisoner’ (i.e. felon imprisoned in a state penitentiary subject to due process etc.) is such an example, then I wonder how a proponent of the role thesis would be able to hold D/C as a caveat to the Role Thesis when presented with the case of some resentful prisoner- J. Bird. The Role Thesis says that J-Bird has reasons to do that which is conducive to the ends of the prisoner role by virtue of occupying the prisoner role, and by that alone. D/C says he does not, because he occupies the role involuntarily. But making involuntary role-occupation a role-reason-disabler/constraint looks fishily to make non-involuntariness an enabling (or necessary?) condition of the Role Thesis. This in turn makes the Role Thesis’s basis in constitutive standards – the ‘by that alone’ part – look less plausible.

    As for D/C giving ground to the internalist, this is less clear but my thought is that D/C looks a lot like a reasons-internalist caveat, at least insofar as the reasons-internalist would just obviously agree with it as a modification/constraint on the Role Thesis. (They’d agree that J-Bird has no normative reason to be locked up and do what ‘prisoner’ must do, and they’d cash this out in terms of there being no link to these reasons to be found in J-Bird’s ‘subjective motivational set’ (to use the probably now outmoded Williams-speak).)

    If I have things right here, then what would seem to matter is that without D/C the Role Thesis has to say apparently counter-intuitive things such as ‘Django has reason to do slave things’ when a) Django strongly resent his being a slave and b) the role into which he was forced is itself unjust and immoral, such that there are strong reasons against its being a role. I have some thoughts on that, but for now I wonder if I do indeed have things right here.

  41. Reid Blackman says:

    Hi Sean – thanks for the comment!

    First, perhaps the ‘by that alone’ part is misleading. I meant that the sole ground of the normative reason is role-occupation, but didn’t mean to preclude other necessary conditions. In connection with this, consider…

    Second, Humeanism about practical reason, according to which all of A’s practical reasons are grounded in the desires of A, and non-naturalism, according to which all of A’s practical reasons are grounded in (facts about) non-natural values. Defenders of those views adopt various theses about practical reasons that put constraints on whether the alleged grounds of normative reasons actually do the grounding they standardly do. One common constraint, adopted by many Humeans and non-naturalists alike, is ‘has a normative reason’ implies ‘can’. It would be no objection to a Humean to say, “not all desires ground reasons, since satisfying some desires would require you to do the impossible.” Similarly, it would be no objection to the non-naturalist to say, “not all value grounds reasons, since protecting or promoting some objects of value is impossible.” Putting the point most generally, Humeans and non-naturalists are in the business of specifying what grounds, or that by virtue of which, an agent has a certain set of normative reasons. They are in the business of telling us what kinds of things ground normative reasons. But in identifying what that ground is, they are not specifying sufficient conditions for an agent’s having the reasons she does.

    Other constraints might be needed on a theory of practical reasons, including whether we need an “immorality constraint” and/or a “voluntarist constraint.” Do immoral or involuntarily acquired desires (e.g. desires formed by being forced to take a highly addictive drug, or being shot by an “intrinsic-desire-forming gun”) ground normative reasons? Could one have a reason against one’s will to promote something of non-natural value? The answers are beside the point for our purposes. What is important is that Humeans and non-naturalists may adopt such constraints – necessary conditions for having a reason – and would no more be compromising their respective theses than when they allow that ‘has a reason’ implies ‘can’. And exactly the same can be said of a defender of the Role Thesis.

    That said, it is one thing to assert a constraint, and another to explain why it is needed and what justifies it. Presumably we want more than ad hoc constraints so that the theories fit our (allegedly) pre-theoretical intuitions. But in this regard, the Role Thesis is on all fours with Humeanism and Non-naturalism: if immorality or involuntariness are disabling, it’s disabling for everyone, and everyone needs to explain why they are (which is not to say they should all offer the same explanation).

    Third, given that I think the voluntarist point applies to all theories of practical reason, I don’t think it’s a particularly reasons-internalist caveat, contrary to what you suggested. As I said, I think Humeans need such a constraint as well. Of course, they might bite the bullet, and assert no such constraint exists. But that would just be to allow that, when Django is shot against his will with an intrinsic-desire-forming gun, which is set on ‘strong intrinsic desire to be a slave to the shooter’, Django would have (possibly strong, depending on the theory of weighting the Humean adopts) non-instrumental reason to be a slave to the shooter. So the Humean who doesn’t adopt that voluntarist constraint would be in the same boat as the defender of the Role Thesis defender who doesn’t adopt that constraint. At any rate, I think they both need to adopt the constraint, which is not to say I have a firm view on how it should be argued for.

    Does that speak to your concerns about the Role Thesis and the voluntarist constraint?