Thanks so much to the Daves for inviting me to contribute!
I’m working on a book, Natural Reasons through Virtue, and I’d love your feedback on some of its central moves. The book’s thesis is that what it is to be a normative reason for action is to be a certain kind of premise in good practical deliberation, where the goodness of good deliberation is cashed out in terms of virtue, naturalistically understood in terms of the psychological dispositions that our virtue terms refer to. Call this the Naturalistic Virtue Theory of reasons for action.
My defense of the Naturalistic Virtue Theory turns partly on a response to a familiar objection to normative naturalism: the objection that the normative is “just too different” from the natural to be capturable in naturalistic terms—and specifically, that naturalistic views eliminate rather than capturing the peculiar “normativity of the normative” (Enoch 2011: 104-8). I argue that once we think through what it would take to capture the “normativity of the normative,” in the case of reasons for action in particular, we’re pushed towards a family of views of which the Naturalistic Virtue Theory is a particularly promising member. And surprisingly, the most prominent non-naturalist views, on which the property of being a reason for action is an irreducibly normative non-natural property, turn out to do worse at capturing normativity than the Naturalistic Virtue Theory.
What does it take to capture the “normativity of the normative”? The debate is intractable without defending some reasonably clear hallmarks of normativity, hallmarks that we can then use as criteria of adequacy for our theories. I argue that the following necessary connection between reasons and good deliberation is a hallmark of the normativity of reasons for action:
Deliberative Constraint: p is a normative reason of strength s for A to Φ in C only if there’s a course of non-normatively well-informed good deliberation that A could undertake in C, therein taking p into account and weighting p’s strength as s. Good deliberation concludes in acting on the weightiest reasons, in the way that they support, or in forming an intention to so act.
My argument for this claim draws on my (2017) paper “Can There Be Government House Reasons for Action?” In brief, the argument is that normative reasons for action are capable of imposing authoritative demands on people; but reasons couldn’t do that if the Deliberative Constraint were false. So the Deliberative Constraint is true, and moreover, it’s true precisely because of the peculiar normativity of normative reasons—because of reasons’ ability to impose authoritative demands. The Deliberative Constraint is a hallmark of the normativity of normative reasons.
I don’t want to focus on the argument for that claim in this post. What I’d like feedback on is the following (I’ve broken it down to four numbered claims, for ease of reference).
Claim 1: If the Deliberative Constraint is a hallmark of the normativity of reasons for action, then our account of reasons should explain why it holds—should explain why there’s this necessary connection between reasons and good deliberation. The following Virtue Theory of reasons can explain it:
Virtue Theory: What it is for p to be a normative reason of strength s for A to Φ in C is for p to be a premise in a possible course of non-normatively well-informed virtuous deliberation in C that would weight p’s strength as s, and if p is decisive, would conclude in A’s Φ-ing or intending to Φ on the basis of p.
On the Virtue Theory, the Deliberative Constraint follows from the nature of reasons. It holds because what it is to be a reason for action just is to be the relevant sort of premise in good deliberation, where the goodness of good deliberation is a matter of virtue.
Note that the Virtue Theory isn’t as such naturalist: the naturalist part of my view enters with a further naturalistic reduction of virtue in terms of the psychological dispositions that our virtue terms refer to. Note also that to avoid circularity, we must characterize good deliberation in terms other than responsiveness to normative reasons for action. This is what reference to virtue does. The virtues are, inter alia, dispositions of deliberation, of certain shapes whose nature doesn’t in turn involve the property of being a reason for action; and yet these dispositions, when plugged into the Virtue Theory, yield an extensionally plausible account of our reasons. For example, prudence involves weighting facts about one’s long-term well-being above facts about mere short-term well-being; honesty involves weighting the importance of telling the truth in certain characteristic ways and acting accordingly; etc. The idea is that facts about such virtuous ways of deliberating in a circumstance are metaphysically prior to, and help to articulate the nature of, facts about normative reasons for action.
Claim 2: The Virtue Theory’s ability to explain the Deliberative Constraint doesn’t depend on whether virtue can be naturalized. A naturalistic version of the Virtue Theory thus promises to capture the normativity of normative reasons, at least insofar as explaining the Deliberative Constraint is sufficient for that.
Claim 3: Besides the Virtue Theory, the only other accounts of reasons that can explain the Deliberative Constraint are alternative versions of “good deliberation” views: views on which reasons are premises in good deliberation, but the goodness of good deliberation is cashed out in termsother than virtue. For instance, certain types of constitutivistview, on which good deliberation is deliberation that accords with the constitutive norms of deliberation as such, could do the trick.Likewise, the view that reasons are premises in good reasoning, and good reasoning is a matter of fittingness-preservation, would do (McHugh & Way 2016, 2018). If the Virtue Theory is superior to such views, it’s not because they can’t in principle explain the Deliberative Constraint. But notably, any view that’s not a “good deliberation” view looks unable to explain the Deliberative Constraint. Importantly, reasons brutism—the view that the property of being a normative reason cannot be analyzed further, and can merely be characterized e.g. in terms of the idea that normative reasons “count in favor” of responses (Parfit 2011, Enoch 2011)—can’t explain it. Likewise for views on which reasons are evidence that we ought to Φ (Kearns & Star 2009), or on which reasons are certain sorts of explanations of why we ought to Φ (Broome 2013)—unlesswe add to these views that the relevant sorts of explanations or evidence must be essentially such as to be able to figure in deliberation towards the action that they are reasons for, making these views into types of “good deliberation” view.
Surprisingly, then, the Naturalistic Virtue Theory does better at capturing the normativity of reasons for action than do non-naturalist reasons brutist views of the type that those pressing the “just too different” intuition against naturalism tend to favor.
Claim 4: One might object that our account of reasons needn’t explain the Deliberative Constraint, because our account of good deliberation can: perhaps what it is for a course of deliberation to be good is for it to take account of the normative reasons there are, and to weight them appropriately. However, this won’t do. While such a view could explain the Deliberative Constraint, it would make a mystery out of the further idea that the Deliberative Constraint is a hallmark of the normativity of normative reasons. On the proposed view, there’s nothing in the nature of reasons that explains the necessary connection to good deliberation, yet this necessary connection is needed for making sense of an essential feature of normative reasons themselves—namely, their peculiar normativity. This makes no sense. If the normativity of normative reasons is an essential feature of reasons, then whether reasons have this feature can’t be due to the nature of something else entirely, something that might or might not obtain as far as the nature of reasons is concerned. It can’t be the case that if (perhaps per impossibile) the nature of good reasoning were different, then normative reasons wouldn’t be normative. But this would be the case on the proposed type of view.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to your comments.
See Setiya 2007 for a defense of a different version of a virtue theory of reasons, on different grounds than mine.
Cf. e.g. Korsgaard 2009; and see my (2018) “Doing Away with the ‘Shmagency’ Objection to Constitutivism,” section 4, for a slightly more detailed explanation of how such a constitutivist view might go.
Broome, J. 2013. Rationality through Reasoning. Wiley: Blackwell.
Enoch, D. 2011. Taking Morality Seriously: A Defense of Robust Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kearns, S. & Star, D. 2009. Reasons as Evidence. Oxford Studies in MetaethicsVol 4:215-242.
Korsgaard, C. 2009. Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity and Integrity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McHugh, C. & Way, J. 2016. Fittingness First. Ethics126 (3): 575-606.
McHugh, C. & Way, J. 2018. What is Good Reasoning? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research96 (1):153-174.
Paakkunainen, H. 2017. Can There Be Government House Reasons for Action? Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 12 (1):56-93.https://doi.org/10.26556/jesp.v12i1.213
Paakkunainen, H. 2018. Doing Away with the “Shmagency” Objection to Constitutivism. Manuscrito41 (4):431-480. http://www.scielo.br/pdf/man/v41n4/2317-630X-man-41-04-431.pdf
Parfit, D. 2011. On What Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Setiya, K. 2007. Reasons without Rationalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.