Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Samuel Asarnow‘s “Internal Reasons and the Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The paper is published in the most recent issue of Ethics, and is available here. Ulf Hlobil has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!
Ulf Hlobil writes:
Samuel Asarnow’s “Internal Reasons and the Boy Who Cried Wolf” is an admirably forceful and clear attack on what Asarnow dubs the “if I were you” argument for reasons internalism. Here, I want to raise two critical questions. Before I do that, however, a brief summary is in order.
Consider the following case (not in Asarnow):
Sweatshop: I want to buy new sneakers today. The sneakers are available in store X and in store Y, and store X is closer to me than store Y. I falsely believe that store X is closed and store Y is open; in fact, both are open. Now, the sneakers sold at store X stem from a batch that was produced in a sweatshop; the batch sold at store Y was produced ethically. Furthermore, it is a moral truth that one ought not to buy sneakers that were produced in sweatshops. However, I have no goals or values that would speak against buying sneakers that were produced in sweatshops. My motivation is out of sync with morality.
Question: Given these facts and supposing that other things are equal, is there (sufficient, undefeated) normative reason for me to go to store X, to store Y, or neither?
Let’s agree that I have reason to do F iff, given the right way to fix outcomes O and information state I, doing F will promote outcomes O if I is accurate. To answer our question, we have to answer two further questions.
(Q1) Are the outcomes, O, that are relevant for fixing my reasons determined exclusively by what goes on in my mind, rather than the normative truths?
Let’s say that the relevant facts about outcomes are internal if the answer is “yes” and external otherwise.
(Q2) Is the information state, I, that is relevant for fixing my reasons determined exclusively by what goes on in my mind, rather than how the world really is?
Let’s say that the relevant information is subjective if the answer is “yes” and objective otherwise. Now, there are four ways to answer these two questions: (1) no / no; i.e. objective externalism. (2) no / yes; i.e. subjective externalism. (3) yes / yes; i.e. subjective internalism. And, finally, (4) yes / no; i.e. objective internalism. Asarnow identifies this last option with reasons internalism. Reasons internalism is the view that “[f]acts about what there is normative reason for an agent to do are objective internalist facts. That is, they are facts about which actions promote a set of outcomes determined by A’s mind, given a body of information representing how the world really is” (p. 39).
According to reasons internalism, in Sweatshop, there is normative reason for me to go to store X. After all, store X is conveniently close, and (unbeknownst to me) it is open. Options 1-3 all agree that I don’t have sufficient reason to go to store X, though they disagree why. Both kinds of externalism (options 1 and 2) yield this result because here the relevant outcome is that I buy sneakers that were produced ethically. Subjective internalism (option 3) yields this result because the relevant information state includes that store X is closed.
Reasons internalism is best understood, according to Asarnow, as a claim about the reasons (let’s call them “deliberative reasons”) that determine what one ought to do, in the sense of the so-called “deliberative ought.” So, while all options, 1-4, may succeed in defining a coherent notion of normative reason, the crucial question is which of these notion is the one that answers the question “What should I do?”, as we usually raise this question in deliberation.
Asarnow Against the “If I Were You” Argument
With this framing in place, Asarnow looks at what he calls the “if I were you” argument for reasons internalism. The idea behind the “if I were you” argument is this: We can take up an agent’s deliberative perspective and consider, given that perspective, what we should do in their situation. Call that “if I were you” thinking. Since “if I were you” thinking adopts the perspective of the agent’s deliberation, what matters from within this perspective are exactly the agent’s deliberative reasons. Now:
(P1) A suggestion that an agent, A, does F is appropriate in “if I were you” thinking iff there are normative (deliberative) reasons for A to do F.
(P2) A suggestion that an agent, A, does F is appropriate in “if I were you” thinking iff, given what the world is really like and A’s goals and values, it would make sense for A to do F.
(C1) Therefore, there are normative (deliberative) reasons for A to do F iff, given what the world is really like and A’s goals and values, it would make sense for A to do F.
C1 is a formulation of reasons internalism, i.e., objective internalism. A lot is packed into the notion of “making sense” in P2. The idea is that the suggestion that A does F, must make suitable contact with the agent’s rational capacities and her take on her situation. The agent must be able to appreciate the force of the suggestion without this requiring a conversion experience or the like. I will leave it at that here.
Asarnow rejects P2 and holds instead that a suggestion that A does F is appropriate in “if I were you” thinking iff, given A’s beliefs and A’s goals and values, it would make sense for A to do F. Thus, according to Asarnow, suggestions in “if I were you” thinking are constraint by the reasons recognized by subjective internalists. Here is where Aesop’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf appears:
Boy: A shepherd’s boy who cried “wolf” too often in the past sees a wolf and cries “wolf.” Past experience with the boy is such that the villagers, upon hearing the boy, now rationally believe that there is no wolf around.
Question: Do the villagers have normative reason to check on their flock?
If we accept P1, this question reduces to: Is the suggestion that the villagers check on their flock appropriate in “if I were you” thinking? In response to that question, the reasons internalist must hold (on pain of rejecting P2) that what matters is just whether or not there actually is a wolf around. What the villagers believe and what it would be rational for them to believe is irrelevant. Asarnow argues, however, that considerations that parallel those why internalists want the outcomes to be fixed by the agent’s mental states apply here. E.g., the villagers cannot appreciate the force of the suggestion by good reasoning alone, i.e., there is no sound deliberative route to the belief that there is a wolf around. Hence, if those considerations are cogent, then we should let the information state be fixed by the agent’s mental states.
Why Not Subjective Internalism?
Asarnow’s strategy is to force the advocate of the “if I were you” argument into subjective internalism. And he thinks that this will put considerable pressure on reasons internalists, for two reasons: First, in Williams’s famous example, the agent has normative reasons not to drink the gasoline that she believes is gin. Conversely, that her glass contains gin cannot be a normative reasons for her to drink its content because reasons must be facts. These verdicts are incompatible with subjective internalism. Second, accepting subjective internalism would reduce the debate about reasons internalism to a merely verbal debate. For, disputes between objective externalists and subjective internalists are best understood as merely verbal, says Asarnow (p. 49). They mean different things by “normative reason.” And Asarnow thinks that subjective internalist reasons are not plausible candidates for being deliberative reasons.
That brings me to my first question: Why are subjective internalist reasons poor candidates for being deliberative reasons? In Williams’s example, the reason that is the “right kind of thing to close deliberation” – to use Schroeder’s (2011, p. 9) gloss on the deliberative “ought” – is the (false) consideration that the glass contains gin. The agent is not morally culpable or criticizable or deliberating badly if she drinks what is in the glass on the grounds that it contains gin. That brings us to the second point. What matters in good deliberation as well as for matters of moral culpability and criticism is what the agent believes (or rationally believes), not the facts. Hence, if the deliberative reasons that we are interested in are the reasons that determine the quality of deliberation, moral culpability, and criticizability, then the points Asarnow mentions don’t do anything to show that deliberative reasons are not subjective internalist reasons; or so it seems to me.
I admit that subjective internalism will probably seem unattractive to many reasons internalists. That doesn’t imply, however, that it is false that deliberative reasons are subjective internalist reasons.
Is the Internalist’s Notion of Reasons Useless?
My second question is this: Asarnow admits that the objective internalist notion of a normative reason is coherent. (Thanks to Asarnow for clarifying this in private correspondence.) He suggests that the objective externalist’s notion of reason is useful because it tracks, at least roughly, what would be the optimal course of action. The subjective internalist’s notion of reason is useful because it tracks, at least roughly, what it would be rational for the agent to do. It would be rational for me to go to store Y because I believe that store X is closed. And it would be the optimal course of action, too, because the sneakers sold in store Y are ethically produced. Asarnow seems to think that there is no use for the objective internalist’s notion of reason, and especially no use that comes close to the work done by the notion of deliberative reasons. But why?
It seems to me that the objective internalist’s notion of a normative reason is useful in certain contexts of advice, and that this is what the “if I were you” argument is trying to bring out. If you know that store X is open, it would make sense for you to give me advice by saying: “I think you should go to store Y because the batch of sneakers sold at store X was produced under unethical conditions. As I know that you really don’t care about that kind of thing, however, I guess you should go to store X because it is actually open, contrary to what you believe.” Of course, we also sometimes give advice without holding the agent’s goals and values fixed; as when you tell me that I should care more about the production conditions of the goods I buy. There is, however, also the kind of advice where I offer you my best thinking on how to realize your goals and values, given (what I take to be) my knowledge of the descriptive facts. I can, e.g., give you advice on where to go if you are into vegan food, collecting stamp, or bird watching, even though I couldn’t care less about these things. This kind of advice seems to be constraint in much the way that objective internalists suggest “if I were you” thinking is constraint. If you are, e.g., a villager who hears the boy cry “wolf” and I know that there is actually a wolf around, I might say: “I personally think that sheep are overrated and wolfs deserve a good meal, but given that you care so much about your sheep, I suggest that you believe the boy today and check on your flock.”
Now, is this context of advice a context where we appeal to deliberative reasons? For what it’s worth, Mark Schroeder tells us that it is a hallmark of the deliberative “ought” that “it matters directly for advice” (Schroeder 2011, p. 9). I am not sure that I have a firm enough grip on the idea of deliberative reasons to know whether this applies to them too. In any event, I cannot find anything in Asarnow’s paper that rules this out. The three responses that Asarnow considers and dismisses at the end of his paper, e.g., all try to establish that suggestions in “if I were you” thinking must be evaluated in light of objective internalist reasons. He might be right that this evaluation is not obligatory, but that doesn’t imply that we cannot choose to adopt it or that, if we adopt it, the reasons we talk about are not (some kind of) deliberative reasons.
Schroeder, M. (2011). Ought, Agents, and Actions. Philosophical Review 120 (1):1-41.