Welcome to our NDPR Forum on Benjamin Kiesewetter’s book The Normativity of Rationality (OUP 2017), recently reviewed by Alex Worsnip at NDPR. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book, the review, or the discussion below.
From the book blurb: “Sometimes our intentions and beliefs exhibit a structure that proves us to be irrational. The Normativity of Rationality is concerned with the question of whether we ought to avoid such irrationality. Benjamin Kiesewetter defends the normativity of rationality by presenting a new solution to the problems that arise from the common assumption that we ought to be rational. The argument touches upon many other topics in the theory of normativity, such as the form and the content of rational requirements, the preconditions of criticism, and the function of reasons in deliberation and advice.
Drawing on an extensive and careful assessment of the problems discussed in the literature, Kiesewetter provides a detailed defence of a reason-response conception of rationality, a novel, evidence-relative account of reasons, and an explanation of structural irrationality in terms of these accounts.”
From Worsnip’s review: “Benjamin Kiesewetter’s book is a sophisticated and extremely thorough examination of the question of whether rationality is normative. This question may seem to many non-specialist readers ill-formulated, and to make sense of it one has to understand what the parties to this debate mean by ‘normative’ and ‘rationality’. ‘Normative’ is used not in a weak sense that contrasts with ‘descriptive’, but rather in a stronger sense whereby rationality is normative just if there are reasons to be rational. Meanwhile, ‘rationality’, at least for several prominent parties to the debate, is used to refer to what is sometimes called structural rationality, where to be structurally rational is to have attitudes that are not jointly incoherent. So, for these writers, the question ‘is rationality normative?’ comes roughly to the at least somewhat less odd-sounding ‘do we have reasons to be coherent?’
“Kiesewetter follows these writers in their usage of ‘normative’, but not in their usage of ‘rationality’. For Kiesewetter, to be rational is to correctly respond to one’s reasons. That puts us back into a position of oddness, for the question ‘is rationality normative?’ now comes to something like ‘do we have reasons to do (believe, intend, etc) what our reasons favor doing?’ The question answers itself.
“Given that, how are we to make sense of Kiesewetter’s project? One answer, germane to his own presentation, is that it is a substantive project to show that rationality is not(merely) a matter of coherence, but instead consists in responding to reasons — and is, thus, normative. But this glosses over the fact that, at least for some prominent participants in the debate about the normativity of rationality, the usage of ‘rationality’ to refer to coherence alone had the status of a terminological stipulation. Such philosophers acknowledged that one can use ‘rationality’ in a more capacious sense, to refer to reasons-responsiveness — call it “substantive”, as opposed to “structural” rationality — and that substantive rationality is, of course, normative. Their interest was in whether there is reason to be coherent in particular.
“But there is a better way to reframe Kiesewetter’s project, and to show its interest and importance. On this framing, the positive part of the project has two elements. The first is to give a detailed account of what substantive rationality consists in. The slogan that (substantive) rationality concerns responding to reasons is easy, but it turns out to be surprisingly hard to make precise. Ethicists often distinguish “objective” and “subjective” reasons, where the former are relative to all of the facts (no matter how inaccessible), and the latter are relative to one’s beliefs. Now, there’s plausibly norecognizable sense of the term ‘rationality’ that requires us to respond to our objectivereasons. If the glass in front of me appears to contain gin and tonic, but — undetectably and contrary to appearances — actually contains petrol, then in drinking it I fail to do what I have most objective reason to do, and yet there is no good sense in which my act is irrational. But if we say that rationality requires us only to respond to our subjective reasons — where subjective reasons are relativized to our beliefs — then we have retreated to a notion of rationality that is arguably no more demanding than that of structural rationality, or coherence. For plausibly, coherence already requires us to (intend to) do what we believe ourselves to have most reason to do — and more besides. So, if these are our only options, there seems to be no notion that deserves both the label ‘substantive’ and the label ‘rationality’.
“Kiesewetter’s excellent point, however, is that these are not our only options. There is an intermediate, evidence-relative notion of a reason. Substantive rationality consists in responding to our evidence-relative reasons. Consider a different version of the aforementioned case whereby my evidence strongly suggests that what is in front of me is petrol, and yet I go on obstinately believing that it is gin and tonic. In this case, though my act of drinking would still not be a failure to respond to my “subjective” reasons understood in a purely belief-relative sense, it is a failure to respond to my evidence-relative reasons, and this grounds the fact that my act is substantively irrational — even though I may display no incoherence. Though one could certainly quibble with Kiesewetter’s particular version of the evidence-relative view, I will not do so here. In my opinion, he is clearly right that it is the evidence-relative notion of a reason that we want for an account of substantive rationality.”