Very pleased to be able to introduce today’s Featured Philosopher, Errol Lord. Take it away Errol:
The following is based on joint work with Kurt Sylvan (see our paper ‘Reasons: Wrong, Right, Normative, Fundamental’, which is forthcoming in Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy. I wrote this, though, so all mistakes belong to me.
There are few substantive claims about normative reasons that everyone can get on board with. Here is one candidate: there is a correlation between certain normative properties and the existence of certain normative reasons. So, for example, whenever someone is admirable, there are normative reasons to admire that person. Whenever something is desirable, there are normative reasons to desire it. The list could go on. To be clear, this is not to say (yet) that we can analyze admirability or desirability in terms of normative reasons. This just posits a correlation.
These correlation claims should be acceptable to everyone. But there’s a problem. The problem is that even these correlation claims are threatened by the wrong kind of reasons problem. The WKR problem arises because you can have considerations that, in some sense, count in favor of admiration or desire that don’t correlate with admirability and desirability. Good Chair and Bad Chair bring this out:
Good Chair: Alex’s chair possesses the most important virtues required for successful chairing of an academic department. They are responsible, conscientious, impartial, pays great attention to detail, and is sensitive to what really matters. Alex admires her chair for having these qualities.
Bad Chair: Alex’s chair possesses none of the virtues required for successful chairing of an academic department. They are lazy, combative, partial for arbitrary reasons, and has terrible views about what is important. Due to these qualities, they are prone to look favorably only towards those that admire them. They even go so far as formally demanding admiration.
In Good Chair, there are reasons to admire Alex’s chair. These reasons correlate with her chair’s admirability. Indeed, it’s plausible that the existence of these reasons explain the admirability (but, again, you don’t need to think this to think there is a correlation). This is not so in Bad Chair. There is a consideration that counts in favor of admiring the chair–one can be in the chair’s good graces only if they admire them. But this consideration doesn’t seem to correlate with admirability. It is the wrong kind of reason to admire. What this shows is that everyone who accepts the correlation claim needs to explain which considerations that count in favor correlate with admirability. Once we do this, it is often assumed (foreshadowing!), we will be in a position to say which normative reasons correlate with admirability.
An important observation–which is made vividly by Mark Schroeder–about the WKR problem is that it seems very general. Indeed, it seems like it arises wherever there is a standard of correctness. Good Boy Scout and Bad Boy Scout bring this out:
Good Boy Scout: Kenny is a precocious and studious boy scout. He has learned how to tie most of the knots in the Boy Scout handbook. He is currently trying to tie a half-hitch. Placing the left portion of the rope over the right would be an efficient step toward producing a half-hitch as described by the book. Kenny chooses to manipulate the rope accordingly with this fact in mind.
Bad Boy Scout: Billy is a terrible boy scout. He has it out for Kenny, and likes to mess with Kenny’s sense of Boy Scout decency. So when he sees Kenny practicing his knot tying skills, he decides to have some fun with him. He decides to offer him $20 to deviate from the book when tying his half-hitch. Kenny sees the utility of the $20 and is thus disturbed, just as Billy intended. Kenny gives in this one time and moves the rope in a way that will at best lead to a very bad example of a half-hitch.
In Good Boy Scout, there is a RKR to place the left portion of the rope over the right–the reason is provided by the fact that this is the most efficient step for producing a half-hitch. In Bad Boy Scout, Kenny has a WKR to not place the left portion over the right provided by Billy’s bribe. The reason why it’s possible to generate this case is the existence of the knot tying standard of correctness. This generates the RKR and is what Billy exploits to generate the WKR.
What this suggests is that the RKR are the considerations that count in favor that are tied to the standards in the right way. Understood in this way, the RKRs relative to some standard are the considerations that count in favor that are generated by that standard. The WKRs count in favor of reactions governed by the standard, but in a way that is divorced from the standard. The explains the fact that the WKRs are idiosyncratic. They are not the sorts of reasons one has simply in virtue of being governed by the standard.
Here’s the rub: If this is the right way to think about RKRs, then not all RKRs are normative reasons. Thus, distinguishing the RKRs from the WKRs is not sufficient for determining which considerations correlate with admirability–i.e., it’s not enough to figure out which considerations are normative reasons. This gives rise to the right kind of reasons problem.
Why think that not all RKRs will be normative reasons if we analyze RKRs in terms of standards of correctness? The answer is simple: Standards of correctness come cheap. They come much cheaper than robust normativity.
To see the point vividly, consider cooking. There are many different recipes for cooking cacio e pepe (a Roman pasta dish; literally, cheese and pepper). Each recipe determines a standard of correctness for cooking cacio e pepe. So it is possible to draw the RKR/WKR distinction with respect to these standards. But, as any respectable Roman will tell you, not all of these standards are equal. Some of them are inferior to others. The inferior recipes will generate RKRs, but those RKRs will not plausibly be normative reasons, even for those cooking cacio e pepe. So not all RKRs are normative reasons.
If this is right, then in order to figure out which considerations correlate with admirability, we not only need to differentiate the WKRs from the RKRs, we need to differentiate the RKRs that provide normative reasons from the RKRs that don’t. To do the latter is to solve the right kind of reasons problem. This problem is on all fours with the WKR problem insofar as it demands a differentiation amongst the favorers. It thus should impact theorizing about the connections between normative reasons and other normative properties in a similar way.2