Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Standard Reasons, Adaptive Reasons

[I wrote the following in an exam for Michael Smith's class last semester. It explains some helpful distinctions that I want to be able to refer back to in future posts...]

In 'Reasons: Practical and Adaptive' Raz makes distinctions between, on the one hand, practical and adaptive reasons, and on the other, standard and non-standard reasons. Explain these distinctions using examples.

Imagine a biology student whose parents threaten to disown her should she ever come to believe in evolution. This situation exposes her to what look to be two very different kinds of reasons regarding her belief. From her biology class, the student receives epistemic reasons, i.e. reasons which speak to the truth of the thing believed. From her parents, she receives practical reasons, i.e. reasons which speak to the (dis)value of holding the belief in question. There are a couple of noteworthy differences revealed by this scenario, which form the bases of Raz’s two distinctions.

First, consider how reflecting on the various reasons will affect the student’s beliefs. Faced with compelling evidence that evolution has in fact occurred, she may - as a rational agent - come to believe it. That is, her rational faculties may respond to her apprehension of epistemic reasons for a belief by directly producing the recommended belief. This marks epistemic reasons as instances of what Raz calls standard reasons, or reasons that “we can follow directly”. Practical reasons for belief, by contrast, are non-standard in that they cannot be directly followed. Much as the student might wish to please her parents, no amount of reflection on their threat will suffice by itself to change her scientific beliefs.

What if people could respond directly to practical reasons for belief by changing their belief? It seems like this should be possible. At least, we can imagine a scenario in which reflecting on the practical benefits of holding a belief has a similar neurological effect as what actually happens when we reflect on evidence suggesting the truth of a belief. One might argue that the resulting neurological state, being sensitive to non-epistemic reasons, no longer qualifies as ‘belief’. But this seems implausible so long as enough of the functional role of belief remains intact: the person still sincerely asserts the proposition when asked what they believe, draws inferences from it, and behaves in ways that could be expected to fulfill their desires if the proposition were true, etc. So I think we must allow that this scenario is properly described as involving belief. But does it involve following a reason? This seems more questionable. Raz suggests, of a similar case, that the agent merely deceives themselves into believing that they followed the reason. They have not really done so, for that would be impossible -- it is not the kind of reason that can genuinely be followed in such a fashion. Of course, to assert this without argument risks begging the question, as Raz well recognizes. What we need is some independent basis for determining which reasons can be followed and hence qualify as standard reasons.

One thing we can tell right away is that this is not simply an empirical matter, to be ‘read off’ the neuro-psychological data. Not all forms of influence qualify as rational influence, and information may make its way into our heads without doing so under the guise of a reason. The other lesson from the above scenario is that, as Raz puts it, “whether one follows a reason is not purely a matter of how the agent understands his situation.” Combining these: the agent may cite a practical reason why he holds his belief, and it may indeed have played a central causal role in his neuro-psychology, but this still does not count as following the practical reason, in the normative sense we’re interested in here.

But why not? Raz appeals to “the nature of that reason” to settle the matter. This works most clearly in the case of reasons that are such that it would be self-defeating to try to follow them. For example, I may offer you $100 to hop on one leg for non-pecuniary motives. The prize-money is a reason to hop, but not one you could follow directly without thereby disqualifying yourself. The self-effacing nature of the reason is a logical fact which explains why it cannot be successfully followed, and thus why it is non-standard. But the previous case of practical reasons for belief is less clear. Raz claims that “the fact that non-epistemic reasons cannot serve to warrant belief shows that they cannot be followed.” It is not entirely transparent why this should be so. But I think it is most plausibly understood in reference to the normative character of reason-following, where this is taken to essentially involve a response on the part of our rational faculties (rather than just any old psychological process). Standard reasons are thus understood to be those that rationally justify or warrant the attitude they recommend. Or, if we are willing to take rationality itself as a primitive: standard reasons are those that our rational capacities respond to (insofar as they are functioning properly). Of course, even non-standard reasons may be rationally responded to in a different way: they warrant acting so as to bring about their target attitude, for example. This confirms Raz’s point that non-standard reasons for one thing are standard reasons for something else.

(Aside: there may be some exceptions to this claim. Suppose that God will reward those who are saintly, but to qualify as a saint you must never act from self-interest. This sounds a lot like the other non-standard reasons we’ve discussed, so it would seem ad hoc to deny that it really is a reason. But it cannot be redescribed as a standard reason for anything. However indirectly you bring about your sainthood, if you do it for the reason of the heavenly reward, then you’re no saint after all. So this looks like a non-standard reason without any corresponding standard reason. To hold onto his view that “the fact that they can be followed is what makes reasons into reasons”, Raz had best deny that “non-standard reasons” are really reasons at all. There are no practical reasons for belief. There are just standard reasons for acting to bring about a belief.)

So much for Raz’s first distinction. What of the second? Harking back to our original case of the biology student, notice that only her practical reasons derived from the value of holding the belief. Epistemic reasons instead indicate that the belief would be warranted or appropriate to the way things are, but this does not depend on whether believing the truth would be in any way beneficial. This renders epistemic reasons a subset of what Raz calls adaptive reasons. The adaptive/practical distinction arises whenever we have states whose internal norms of correctness may diverge from their practical value. Emotions are another obvious example. Given that fear is meant to be a response to danger, evidence that we are in danger provides an adaptive reason for this emotion; fear is warranted in such circumstances, regardless of whether it would be beneficial (a question which instead concerns the practical reasons for and against it).

Raz offers what we may take to be three tests for the dependence of reasons on value: (i) the possibility of akrasia, (ii) shaping the world to fit the attitude, and (iii) presumptive sufficiency. Here I will discuss only the second, as it is most vivid. If there’s value in the state of affairs of your having warranted attitudes, then this should be so whether this state of affairs came about as a result of shifting your attitudes to match the world, or by changing the world to match your attitudes. But this is absurd: if you feel fear, for example, there is nothing at all to be said for manipulating your situation to match your emotion by gratuitously exposing yourself to danger. Danger is a reason for fear, but fear is not a reason for (bringing about) danger. This asymmetry demonstrates that the reasons we have for feeling fear when in danger are adaptive reasons -- they do not assume that there is necessarily value in the combination of fear and danger.

Now that I have introduced Raz’s two distinctions, one might wonder about the degree to which they overlap. From my original example, we saw that epistemic reasons are standard and adaptive, whereas the non-epistemic reasons for belief are non-standard and practical. But not all standard reasons are adaptive reasons: sometimes warrant derives from value, as we find for example in reasons for action. If leaping into the air would produce great benefits, then I may follow this reason and rationally decide to leap. So that is an example of a standard practical reason. There may also be non-standard reasons for action, as we saw earlier in the case of prize money given to those who hop from non-pecuniary motives. (Note that this would also be a standard reason to bring it about that you hop, say by stabbing yourself in the foot. The latter is a reason you can follow without self-defeation.)

There is at least some overlap between the two distinctions, however, for there is no possibility of a non-standard adaptive reason. Non-standard reasons for an attitude are really just standard reasons for bringing about the attitude, and this places them firmly in the practical domain. We have seen that the other combinations are all possible, however:

(i) standard adaptive reasons, e.g. scientific evidence as a reason for belief, or evidence of danger as a reason for fear;
(ii) standard practical reasons, e.g. ordinary monetary rewards as a reason for action;
(iii) non-standard practical reasons, e.g. self-effacing rewards as a reason for action, or threat of parental disownment as a reason for belief.


  1. You miss your point - there is a BIG difference betwixt 'belief in somehting' and 'stating that belief'.
    "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," is a most employed concept.

  2. You lost me on the standard/non-standard distinction.

    First, I don't see why we would think that the prize money is a reason to hop. It doesn't recommend all instances of hopping, so it can't be a reason to hop, period. Rather, it's a reason to (hop and rid oneself of pecuniary motives). What's wrong with this picture? It implies that we have yet to see an example of a non-standard reason.

    "Raz claims that 'the fact that non-epistemic reasons cannot serve to warrant belief shows that they cannot be followed.' It is not entirely transparent why this should be so."

    Do you mean that the antecedent of this is not transparently true, or that the whole conditional is not? Unless Raz has some special sense of "warrant", in what you've written I don't see why we should accept the antecedent.


  3. Alex - I think the non/standard distinction is clearest in the case of beliefs, as discussed earlier in my post. But it basically maps onto the distinction Parfit and others have drawn between 'state-based reasons' and 'object-based reasons', if you're more familiar with that.

    In any case, I don't see why appending the conjunct "and rid oneself of pecuniary motives" makes the pecuniary reason to hop any more followable. To win the prize, it must be that you hop for some other reason, and not by following this one (however fine-grained you wish to describe it).

    "Do you mean that the antecedent of this is not transparently true, or that the whole conditional is not?"

    I meant the whole conditional. I'm happy to just assume his antecedent as a premise. (I lose my grip on what you mean by 'warrant' if you deny this. I see all this as more a matter of setting up a shared terminology or framework for further discourse rather than arguing for any substantive conclusions.)


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