Tag Archives: Steve Wall

OPR IV.13 The Reasons One Has

As Keith pointed out in his last post, Section 13 is one of the most important, and likely to be one of the most controversial, sections of The Order of Public Reason.  Although there have been a lot of controversial points made in earlier sections, much of the last several sections may have seemed more descriptive than normative and, therefore, less threatening.  This, however, is the section where the normative rubber hits the descriptive road.  The account that Gaus develops here represents a continuity that goes all the way back to at least Value and Justification and is continued in Justificatory Liberalism, those that are familiar with these earlier works will find much that is familiar here, though often in a different or expanded form.  There is a lot in this section so I won’t necessarily be discussing everything, only the most important points.  If there is something that I leave out that is important, we can definitely expand on those points in the comments.  I will spend most of my post today presenting Gaus’ view and save my critical remarks for Wednesday’s post, but feel free to bring up any critical issues that you may have in the comments.

Gaus begins this section by noting that the idea of social morality that he has been advancing seems to rely on an internalist conception of reasons.  As he claims, the debate between internal and external reasons has become a kind of obsession.   Gaus’ conception of reasons stakes out a position in that debate in opposition to what Joseph Raz has called the Classical View of external reasons as facts about properties of action.  On the Classical View, internal reasons are merely beliefs about facts, not reasons themselves.  The internalist, however, argues that reasons for action must be connected to the motivational set of an agent, that is, to her beliefs and desires about the action in question.   The debate between internal and external reasons has, according to Gaus, become confused.  The debate is really about what reasons there are or what reasons exist.  It is, therefore, really a question about the ontology of reasons.  But, as we have seen throughout the Order of Public Reason, social morality in a world of constrained and embodied reasoners is about what reasons we have, not with what reasons there are.  Gaus’ theory then is only inconsistent with externalism if the externalist also holds an externalist theory of what it means to have a reason, basically that to have a reason is for there to be an external reason that applies to that person.  Gaus rejects this form of externalism, the externalist view of having a reason, as implausible.

Externalism about having reasons is implausible because “it misconstrues the relation between having a reason and being a rational agent.” (233) Consider Aristotle, for instance.  The externalist is committed to saying that Aristotle had a reason to accept the truth of particle physics; but surely, Gaus argues, to think that Aristotle had a reason to embrace particle physics is to make a serious mistake.   Reasons are justificatory, but there is no way that Aristotle could be justified in believing particle physics.  Similarly, to claim that a person or a group have a certain moral reason even though that reason is totally inaccessible to them, in the same way that Aristotle’s reason to accept particle physics is inaccessible, is to not only misuse the language of reasons but, more importantly, to misunderstand and “undermine the point of discourse about reasons and rationality.”(235) We use the idea of having a reason, according to Gaus, to make the actions and intentions of other people intelligible.  The externalist view of having a reason severs the idea of a reason from its role in explaining and justifying action.

Rejecting the externalist view of having a reason does not, however, commit Gaus to, what he calls, the Reason Affirmation Thesis that to have a reason is to affirm that one has that reason.  Affirming a reason is neither necessary nor sufficient to having a reason.   The neurotic may affirm reasons that they do not, in fact, have–crazy beliefs, that the world will end if one blinks for instance, do not provide reasons.  Affirmation is also not necessary to have a reason, all that is required is that there be, in the words of Bernard Williams, “a sound deliberative route” from the subjective motivational set that one has to the reason.  We might think of the Reason Affirmation Thesis as the idea that only the reasons that an agent actually claims to have at any time can justify action.  The rejection of the Reason Affirmation Thesis means that Gaus is committed to some amount of idealization of rational agents.  If we notice that we need to go beyond the actual reasons that agents claim to have, we need another standard of what counts as a reason.  The problem is that once we begin to idealize, we move closer and closer to the externalist view of having a reason.  Gaus cites Steve Wall who argues that once we begin to idealize we realize that “a fully rational person will affirm all, and only, the (external) reasons that apply to her.” (237) If Wall is correct; we will have backed into the externalist view of having a reason merely by idealizing.

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