CAN THERE BE GOVERNMENT HOUSE REASONS FOR ACTION?

Author:Paakkunainen, Hille
 
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THIS ESSAY ARGUES that normative reasons for action are premises in good practical reasoning. In particular, reasons are considerations that nonnormatively well-informed good deliberation takes into account, and if the reasons are decisive, it is part of good deliberation to be moved to act on them in the way that they support. Something like this claim is often quietly observed as a constraint on theorizing about reasons for action, and sometimes explicitly articulated. Mark Schroeder proposes the "Deliberative Constraint" that "one's reasons are the kinds of thing that one ought to pay attention to in deliberating," and suggests that the relative weights of two sets of reasons, R and S, for A to [phi] depend on which of R or S it is "correct to place more weight on... in deliberation about whether to [[phi]]." (1) Kieran Setiya says that reasons for A to [phi] are premises for "sound reasoning to a desire or motivation to [phi]," and sees this as a "harmlessly illuminating" thesis connecting "two things which surely must be connected": reasons for action and practical thinking or deliberation. (2) Jonathan Way says that it is "near platitudinous" that "a reason for you to [phi] must be an appropriate premise for reasoning towards [phi]-ing." (3)

Borrowing Schroeder's term, call the general idea that reasons for action are considerations that good deliberation takes into account and, if the reasons are decisive, issues in action on, the Deliberative Constraint. This constraint is not yet a theory of reasons--at least, not in the version I will defend--but a necessary condition compatible with many further views. While the Deliberative Constraint is relatively orthodox, it has not gone unchallenged, and we currently lack a good sense of why we should subscribe to it, if at all. My aim is to articulate what is right about the orthodoxy, and to explain why recent challenges to it misfire. I argue that if we abandon the Deliberative Constraint, we are left operating with a notion of reasons for action that cannot make sense of reasons' peculiar normativity, and relatedly, cannot play the usual theoretical roles that give questions about the nature and extent of our reasons for action much of their import. We can decide to operate with such a notion of reasons, of course. But we should realize what is thereby sacrificed.

Thoughts in the vicinity of the Deliberative Constraint can seem obviously true, whether explicitly articulated or implicitly adhered to. For example, Horty frames his study of reasons as a study of the logic of reasoning, assuming it as an obvious feature of everyday discourse that reasons are something to focus on in deliberation, provided we are informed of the considerations that are the reasons. (4) Versions of the same assumption inform Williams's famous argument for "internalism" about reasons, Korsgaard's neo-Kantian internalist alternative, as well as many "externalist" views such as those of McDowell or FitzPatrick. (5) These views disagree not on whether reasons are linked to good deliberation, but on whether the agent whose reasons they are must be motivationally capable of undertaking the relevant good deliberation (as for internalists) and, relatedly, what the relevant kind of goodness in deliberation is. (6) Parfit, too, links practical normative reasons to an ideal of rational response to the considerations that are the reasons:

The rationality of our desires and acts depends on whether, in having these desires and acting in these ways, we are responding well to practical reasons or apparent reasons [i.e., to considerations that, if true, would be reasons] to have these desires and to act in these ways. (7) This list of authors who assume that reasons are somehow linked to good deliberation or rational response merely scratches the surface. I do not claim that they all would, on reflection, accept the Deliberative Constraint, in the form that I will defend. But it is common to hold theses in the vicinity, regardless of one's further views.

However, it is actually highly unobvious why the normative support relations between considerations and the actions (or action types) they support should be linked to good deliberation, or to patterns of rational response to information. Normative reasons for an action are considerations that count in favor the action, at least pro tanto. Could there not be normative reasons, p, for agent A to [phi] in C, that are just "out there," counting in favor of A's [phi]-ing--even decisively so--but that A should not or perhaps could not take into account, or act on, no matter how well-informed and rationally excellent her deliberations? Many moral theorists hold that the facts that ultimately morally justify [phi]-ing are often to be ignored in morally good deliberation. Bernard Williams evocatively called the utilitarian version of this view "government house utilitarianism." The image evoked is that of lack of transparency, from the point of view of ordinary agents' morally good deliberations, to the facts about utility-maximization that ultimately morally justify individual action and social policy. (8) If morally good deliberation can ignore ultimate moral justifications, why could rationally excellent, well-informed deliberation not ignore normative reasons, and focus on some other considerations entirely? If there can be "government house" moral justifications, why not also "government house" reasons (GH reasons)?

By GH reasons, I mean reasons that violate the Deliberative Constraint, in whatever its best formulation. While the analogy with GH moral theory is loose, it serves to point out that, if some version of the Deliberative Constraint holds, it is not obvious why. (9) Putative examples of GH reasons cast further doubt on the Deliberative Constraint. Consider this well-known case from Mark Schroeder:

Surprise Party: Nate... hates all parties except for successful surprise parties thrown in his honor [which he loves]. Given Nate's situation, the fact that there is a surprise party waiting for him now at home is a reason for him to go home. But it isn't a reason that Nate could know about or act on. Still, someone Nate trusts might [truly] tell him that there is a reason for him to go home now. (10) The thought is that, although the fact, p, that a surprise party awaits is a reason for Nate to go home, Nate cannot believe that p without destroying p's status as a reason. (11) (The surprise would be ruined, and ceteris paribus, Nate has no reason to go to ruined surprise parties, since he hates them.) Since taking p into account in deliberation requires believing that p, p is a reason for Nate only if Nate does not take p into account in deliberation, and so only if Nate does not take p into account in good deliberation. (12)

Julia Markovits suggests many further examples:

James Bond: Let's say I become convinced I am James Bond. The fact that I am suffering from such a delusion may give me an excellent reason to see a psychiatrist for treatment. But it cannot motivate me to see the psychiatrist. For if this fact could motivate me to seek help, I would no longer be convinced I was James Bond. (13) Soldier in a Just War: In a war fought on humanitarian grounds, soldiers may have reason to desensitize themselves to the common humanity of the inhabitants of an enemy state so that they can more effectively fight a war whose very justification is provided by that common humanity. If they have reason to fight in the war, and fight effectively, then they ought not to be motivated to fight by that reason. (14) Emergency Landing: Captain Sullenberger successfully emergency-landed an Airbus A320, which had lost all thrust in both engines..., in the icy waters of the Hudson River, with no loss of life. [Asked] whether he had been thinking about the passengers as his plane was descending rapidly..., Captain Sullenberger replied, "Not specifically.... I mean, I knew I had to solve this problem. I knew I had to find a way out of this box I found myself in.... My focus at that point was so intensely on the landing... I thought of nothing else." (15) In James Bond, as in Surprise Party, the agent cannot take the putative reason into account without destroying it (perhaps by destroying the fact, p, that was supposed to be the reason). In Soldier and Emergency Landing, the agent should not take the putative reasons into account, or be moved by them. Thus it seems that it cannot be part of good deliberation to take them into account and be moved by them, even if the reasons are decisive. (16) Lest we brush such cases aside as rare exceptions, Markovits suggests further everyday examples:

A specialist... may be able to cure more patients if she's in it for the social prestige than if she's in it chiefly to save lives.... A surgeon may operate more successfully... if she is not thinking of the life that is at stake. [We are often fortunate to be] driven by ulterior motives, habit, instinct, or "auto-pilot" rule-following to make decisions or react to threats which we would have likely reacted to less well if we had been responding motivationally to our reasons If a child runs into the street right in front of my car, I hit the brakes automatically--I am not motivated by a concern for the well-being of the child. In a surprising number of cases, there is much to be said for not being motivated by our reasons. (17) Such cases look to challenge the Deliberative Constraint. If the Constraint is nonetheless defensible, we should explain why these examples do not defeat it, in its best formulation.

Notice that, even if we abandon the Constraint, there are other ways of linking agents' reasons to their subjective perspectives, or to some hypothetical rational response, that the above examples do not challenge. For example, Markovits's own view (which she calls "internalism") is that a reason for A to [phi] is a consideration that counts in favor of A's...

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