Sunday, April 23, 2006

Reasons and Misinformation

I take (objective) "reasons" to be facts which count in favour of an action. If a large rock is about to hit the back of your head, then this is a reason for you to move, even if you don't know about it. There's a sense in which one "should" do what one has most reason to do. As inquiring agents, we try to discover what reasons for action we have, and hence what we should do. Such inquiry would be redundant according to subjective accounts which restrict reasons to things that an agent already believes.

Nevertheless, that's a very objective sense of 'should', and the concept is perhaps better captured by the term 'desirable', or the idea of which action would be best. As inquiring agents, we attempt to uncover which action would be best, and act accordingly. But we only have limited information available to us. In the end, our decisions must be based on subjective reasons, i.e. what the agent takes (or believes) their reasons to be. We may also speak of "apparent reasons" which I define in semi-objective evidential terms: i.e. what the accessible evidence suggests the reasons (most likely) are.

Subjective rationality is a matter of being rational by one's own lights, i.e. acting on one's subjective reasons. I take rationality, simpliciter, to be a matter of acting on the apparent reasons. (After all, this tracks the advice of an ideally rational agent -- a perfect reasoner who responds appropriately to available evidence.) Sometimes people speak of "objective rationality" as a matter of performing the best action, i.e. that which one has most reason to do. But I find that unhelpful. It is not a failure of rationality in any usual sense of the term to fail to duck when a rock is secretly about to hit the back of one's head. (The failure is nevertheless unfortunate, or not for the best.)

For example: suppose I am attacked by an angry bear. Let's say that in actual fact, the best way to respond is to lie still and play dead. So that's what I have most reason to do. But I'm not aware of this fact, and the bear looks rather large and cumbersome, so it is rational (recommended by apparent reasons) for me to flee. But further suppose that I have the deluded belief that I am much stronger than the bear. Then it is "subjectively rational" for me to fight the bear.

I think this makes it clear that "subjective reasons" are empty and lacking in normative force. The interesting notions are what I have called (objective) "reasons", and (evidence-based) "rationality". When distinguished in this way, it seems that we won't necessarily have reason to be rational. That connection would have the wrong direction of fit. It's not that we ought (in the objective sense) to be rational, but rather, that rationality aims to discover what we ought to do. Put another way, the proper aim is surely to do what's best, not what merely seems to be. (Cf. Hare's quote about winning backgammon.)

(See also my old taxonomy of reasons, which neglects the evidence-based option, but distinguishes between different levels of subjectivity.)


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