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Featured Philosopher: Errol Lord

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.

9 Responses to Featured Philosopher: Errol Lord

  1. Hi Errol, Thanks for this interesting post! Can you tell us a little bit more about why we should accept the assumption that generates the right kind of reasons problem, namely that every standard or recipe generates reasons? I would have thought that in Good Boy Scout, there is reason to place the left portion over the right only if there is a standard-indepedent reason to tie a knot in the first place. The standard is involved in the explanation of the fact that there is a good instrumental reason to do it this way. But if there is no standard-indepedent reason, there is simply no reason at all, and the standard doesn’t by itself “generate” a reason. Thus, I would deny that a bad recipe generates RKRs at all. It might generate very weak instrumental reasons if you have reason to cook the dish in question – but these are normative reasons (weak instrumental normative reasons). So I’m not sure why I should accept that there could be RKRs which are not normative.

    While I’m on it, I also don’t see why everyone who accepts the correlation claims between e.g. admirability and reasons is faced with a WKR problem. If you are WKR skeptic (with respect to WKR for attitudes), then there is a perfect correlation. The WKR problem occurs only if you accept that there are WKR in the first place (and of course I think that there are good independent arguments against accepting the existence of such reasons).

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Errol. A couple quick thoughts:

    One thing you might say, which is what I say, is that RKR are reasons generated by standards that are in some way privileged with respect to the activity or attitude in question. In my paper on the topic, I say these are the constitutive standards. I now think that’s too strong, and that being a constitutive standard of an attitude is just one among several ways of being a standard that is privileged with respect to the attitude. You’re right, then, that it’ll turn out that not all RKR are normative reasons, since it’ll turn out that not all (even privileged with respect to the activity) standards generate normative reasons.

    The RKR problem is then the problem of identifying which standards are normative-reason-generating. But solving that problem is just a matter of offering one’s account of what makes one standard normative-reason-generating and another not. On certain realist views, it’s because of the content of the standard — that it involves certain intrinsically normatively important ways things might be. On the roughly anti-realist view I prefer, a standard is instead normative reason-generating because of some fact not about the way the (moral) world is independently of what we care about, but instead because of some (attitudinal) fact about us, about what we care about.

    The realist Roman will say it’s in the nature of cacio e pepe to be cooked in such-and-such way, and that is why there is no normative reason to add the pepper before the cheese, whatever your cookbook says. The anti-realist will say it’s in our nature to prefer cacio e pepe cooked with pepper added after the cheese, and that is why there is no normative reason to add the pepper before the cheese. I prefer the latter view to the former.

  3. Errol Lord says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Benjamin.

    You ask two questions.

    First, why think that what we call right kind reasons are really *reasons* (or is it REASONS?)?

    They are deserving of being called reasons because they behave like reasons. They are the sorts of things that contribute to the case for having certain reactions, relative to their standard. They can carry weight that can be defeated or modified (this is part of why we specify that placing the left over the right is the most efficient). They are also the sorts of things that can ground certain types of criticism for failing to heed their call. Kenny is open to a sort of criticism qua half-hitcher if he fails to place the left over the right, even if he stumbles into tying a half-hitch later on. On the flipside, heeding their call opens one up to a sort of praise (at least when you are motivated by them).

    In these ways, they are even more deserving of being called reasons than WKRs. As you know, many argue against calling WKRs reasons on the grounds that they lack these features (or deny that the WKRs compete with the RKRs because they lack these features). So anyone who is ok calling WKRs reasons should be fine calling RKRs reasons (I know you aren’t fine calling WKRs reasons so I realize that won’t move you).

    Now, of course, you may be right that there is only a *normative* reason if there is some half-hitch independent reason to tie the knot. But to just insist that those are the only things worthy of being called reasons seems question begging.

    Your second question is: Why do WKRs skeptics have the wrong kind of reasons problem?

    WKRs skepticism is a *response* to the problem; it’s not as if WKRs skeptics don’t have to explain why the considerations that count in favor in the right way are privileged over what people call WKRs. They do have that burden. They try to meet it by saying that the WKRs aren’t really reasons. Evaluating that view wasn’t the task of this post, although I am dubious that one can get much leverage for defending that view given the fact that ‘reasons’ is a theoretical term in this context.

  4. Errol Lord says:

    Hi Nate,

    Thanks for the comment! And, also, thanks for a conversation we had many years ago at Triumph in Princeton! That conversation was what got me thinking about these things.

    Yes, in order to solve the RKR problem, one has to show which standards generate normative reasons. I agree that your distinction is an important one. In the paper that this post is inspired by, we consider three different potential solutions to the problem. We end up thinking that the most plausible view is a type of naturalist constitutivism.

  5. Hi Errol,

    Thanks for your response! Could you clarify:

    (a) When you say that the relevant considerations that you think are non-normative RKRs are reasons because they behave like reasons – don’t you claim that they behave like *normative* reasons? And still you don’t want to say that they are normative reasons, only that they are reasons. I’m a bit lost here.

    (b) What exactly is a good example of a non-normative reason that contributes to a case for a certain reaction, carries weight, and/or explains criticism/praise? The fact that a bad recipe instructs you to do something did not seem to me a convincing example.

    (c) Is the knot-tying case supposed to be an example for a non-normative RKR or for a normative RKR?

    (d) What is wrong with explaining the phenomenon you have in mind by appeal to the idea of a consideration that is a potential normative instrumental reason, which becomes an actual normative instrumental reason in case one has a standard-independent normative reason to engage in a practice that is governed by a certain standard? This would seem to explain that the considerations have some of the formal features of normative reasons. The advantage of this story would be that it avoids the appeal to the notion of a reason that is neither the normative, nor the explanatory or motivating notion of a reason. It would also avoid the right kind of reasons problem.

  6. Errol Lord says:

    Hi Benjamin,

    Thanks again for the comments!

    Re (a): Yes, they behave like normative reasons. That is why it is plausible in the first place that the RKRs are tied to the standards. Yet, it is plausible that not all considerations that behave this way are normative reasons since standards come cheap. One of the main conclusions we want to draw is that there are considerations that behave like normative reasons that are not normative reasons. They are merely RKRs.

    Re (b): The fact that you’ve lied is a reason to feel penitence, relative to certain religious standards of correctness. This is a RKR to feel penitence. It has weight, it can be defeated or modified, and it can ground praise and blame relative to the standard. But it simply does not follow that you have a normative reason to feel penitence about lying. The RKRs for penitence are not normative reasons.

    Re (c): We didn’t say if it’s normative. I think that only enhances the point, since it is clear that there is a consideration that plays the roles even though you don’t know yet if it’s a normative reason.

    Re (d): Ultimately, I’ll be dissatisfied with this because I don’t think there are standard-independent reasons. The normative reasons are a subset of the RKRs, which are standard-dependent. Further, not all of the standard-dependent reasons are instrumental. Consider the reasons for belief. The standard here is truth. The reasons for belief are the ones that indicate the truth. Truth sets the standard. There are no normative (RK) reasons for belief independently of that standard. Those RKRs don’t become normative reasons because there is some standard-independent reason to care about the truth. Rather, those RKRs are normative reasons because the belief standard meets some other condition for RKRs being normative reasons. That standard, in other words, is the type of standard that generates normative reasons. For more on this, you’ll have to read the full paper.

  7. Thanks, Errol. I will read the paper! Let me just add two clarificatory points about my suggestion:

    1. I didn’t want to suggest that normative RKRs for attitudes, such as epistemic reasons for belief, are instrumental. My proposal was intended to apply to those practical considerations that you take to be non-normative RKRs. My proposal therefore cannot be rejected on the basis of the assumption that normative RKRs need not be instrumental.
    2. It is not central for the proposal that the source reasons that generate the instrumental reason are standard-independent. Take whatever story you accept about normative reasons for action. My suggestion is: what you take to be non-normative RKRs for action are normative instrumental reasons that are conditional on there being a normative reason to engage in a practice governed by the standard.

    Regarding the putative (non-normative) reason to feel penitence, I just don’t find your claims plausible. Those who accept the standard will think that the relevant consideration carries weight, can be modified, etc. And they will take it to ground praise or criticism. But this is because they take it to be a normative reason. Since I do not accept the standard, I also don’t think the consideration carries weight or grounds criticism. (I’m not sure what you mean by saying that it grounds blame “relative to the standard”, if not that those who accept the standard will take it to ground blame.) So I remain unconvinced that the reasons that create your problem exist.

  8. Errol Lord says:

    Hi again Benjamin,

    Re 1. I interpreted your comment as giving a general modal account of why what we call RKRs have some formal features of normative reasons even though they aren’t reasons. It’s because they would be normative reasons if there were a standard-independent reason to engage in the relevant activity. This is only meant to apply to considerations we call RKRs that aren’t normative reasons? Or only considerations we call RKRs that aren’t normative reasons and are reasons for action? I assume not the former since there are also attitudes that are governed by standards that are not robustly normative (like penitence).

    So, regarding penitence. I don’t quite get what you are denying. Surely you think there is a standard. It also seems obvious that there are some considerations that indicate that having some reaction will help one to conform with that standard. The question is whether those considerations should be called reasons. Are you denying they can recommend to a lesser or greater degree? That also seems very plausible. For one, they can indicate to a lesser or greater degree. This gives rise to a kind of weighing. Further, those indicatory relations can be severed, weakened, or intensified, which gives rise to something like attenuation and intensification. Now, the stuff about criticism and praise go beyond these. I’d still want to call them reasons even if they just had the formal features. But it does seem right that there is a standard-relative notion of criticism and praise. You might be right that most people will criticize and praise when they take the standard to be robustly normative, but that shouldn’t prevent you from understanding the concept of standard-relative criticism and praise.

    You can use the words how you like. What’s important is that there are some considerations that behave a lot like reasons that are not robustly normative. So, in order to tell a satisfying story about which considerations that behave in those ways are robustly normative, you have to differentiate the normative reasons from these other considerations. At the very least, using the word ‘reason’ will allow us to type fewer words when discussing the issue.

  9. Hi Errol,

    Part of what you say seems to suggest that we have a merely terminological dispute about how to use the word ‘reason’. But I think we have a substantial disagreement – which is good, because it means that this exchange has a point apart from clarifying terminology! I disagree with you that the considerations that you have in mind “behave a lot like reasons”. I think they only potentially or hypothetically behave like reasons. For example, I would deny that a consideration that indicates that having some reaction will help to conform with a standard as such is a consideration that *recommends* that reaction to a greater or lesser degree. That it indicates to a greater or lesser degree means that it is evidence, and thus an epistemic reason to believe, that having some reaction will help to conform to a standard. In this sense, of course it can be weighed, modified, defeated, etc. But it doesn’t follow from this (at least without further controversial assumptions) that it therefore recommends (in any sense) the reaction itself. So here we seem to have a substantial disagreement, not only a different way of using the word ‘reason’.

    You are right, however, that my proposal, as I formulated it, seemy to apply only to the considerations that you take to be non-normative RKRs for action, and not to what you take to be non-normative RKRs for attitudes. In the case of penitence, I would suggest that the considerations you think are non-normative RKRs for penitence are really considerations that those who accept the relevant religious standard *take* to be normative reasons. Thus, my conjecture is that there are two kinds of standards in play: those that purport to be normative and acceptance of which means to take certain considerations as reasons (such as the religious standard), and other standards that govern certain practices and thus provide instrumental normative reasons, on the condition that one has normative reason to engage in the practice (such as recipes, rules of games, rules of knot-tying). In either case, what you take to be actual reasons that lack normativity, I take to be potential/hypothetical/apparent/believed normative reasons.