Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Are "Internal Reasons" Normative?

Bernard Williams, in his 'Internal and External Reasons', introduces the internal interpretation of 'A has a reason to ϕ' as "impl[ying], very roughly, that A has some motive which will be served or furthered by his ϕ-ing, and if this turns out not to be so then sentence is false: there is a condition relating to the agent's aims, and if this is not satisfied it is not true to say, on this interpretation, that he has a reason to ϕ."  On the external interpretation of the reasons-claim, by contrast, "there is no such condition."
This makes it sound like internal reason is a complex concept.  We start with the basic (external) concept of a normative reason -- a fact that counts in favour, has normative force, or whatnot -- and then add a quirky motivational constraint.

But of course that can't really be what Williams has in mind, because he wants to cast doubt on the very coherence of the idea of external reasons. ("What is it that one comes to believe when he comes to believe that there is reason for him to ϕ, if it is not the proposition, or something that entails the proposition, that if he deliberated rationally, he would be motivated to act appropriately?")  And if internal reasons = external reasons + a motivational constraint, then any senseless to the concept of an external reason would automatically be inherited by the complex concept of an internal reason.

The remaining option for Williams would seem to be to banish the whole "reason" part of the concept entirely, and understand so-called "internal reasons" purely in terms of the motivational constraint.  In this case, to attribute an internal reason to someone is to do nothing more than to make a certain sort of empirical prediction about how acting in a certain way relates to their desires.  Our sentence 'A has a reason to ϕ'  doesn't merely imply, but is analytically equivalent to, some descriptive sentence along the lines of 'A has some motive which will be served or furthered by his ϕ-ing'.  But then, as Parfit trenchantly notes in On What Matters, this (i) is no longer a distinctively normative claim at all, and moreover (ii) trivializes what should have been a substantive normative claim, namely the subjectivist thesis that we only have reason to do what furthers our desires.

Williams thus seems to face a dilemma.  Either the concept of a normative (external) reason makes sense after all, or else internal reasons aren't normative.  Am I missing something?


  1. So, I find Williams unclear here as well, but one thing he could have in mind is that while we shouldn`t analytically identify having a motive and having a reason, nevertheless all that we can say about what is is to have a reason to do something is that we are motivated to do it or something that will bring it about (or that it relates in a more complicated way to something like that). I.e. there is a distinctive practice of reason giving and receiving and the criteria for having a reason is the possession of a desire. Anyways, that`s always more or less how I took it.

    1. Hmm, I wonder how much that really helps. After all, there's also a distinctive practice (maybe the very same one -- not sure how one individuates "practices") of reason giving and receiving that doesn't have any such restriction, as Williams acknowledges: people sometimes do make external reason claims, after all More generally, insofar as one grants that there's more to internal reasons than just the motivational restriction, and that this "something more" is something legitimate (even if we can't say much informative about its details), then what are the grounds for casting into disrepute any talk or practice involving this "something more" that doesn't happen to also have the arbitrary motivational constraint built in?

      Another way to state the challenge is to ask how simply adding a further constraint could render contentful and legitimate something that Williams believes, without the constraint, to be contentless or somehow illegitimate.

    2. I take it that William`s claim that external reasons are ``mysterious`` and ``quite obscure`` is a denial of exactly that there is a distinctive practice of external REASONS GIVING giving...just a general confusion.

      Consider, from his postscript (in Millgram`s practical reasoning collection)

      ``I do not deny, and it would be absurd to deny, that sentences of the form
      ‘‘A has a reason to . . .’’ (or ‘‘There is a reason for you to . . .’’ and so on)
      are used in ways that do not satisfy the internalist condition. My claim is,
      first, that when they are so used and are not merely mistaken, the speaker
      intends some roughly specifiable other thing which does not mean the
      same in general as ‘‘A has a reason to . . . ,’’ such as ‘‘We have a reason to
      want A to . . .’’; and, second, that there is no principled and convincing
      way of distinguishing the basic sense of ‘‘A has a reason to . . .’’ from
      these other things other than an internalist interpretation.`` (pg. 93)

  2. 1. An important clarificatory note: Williams is providing a necessary, not a sufficient condition, on reasons-statements. This is an interpretive error you inherit from Mr. Parfit, who claims to have idolized Williams but apparently couldn't be bothered to read paragraph two of "Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame". As such, there are a great many more options available to him than your forced dilemma suggests. Adding more necessary conditions, for example. Speaking of which...

    2. In the aforementioned paper, Williams provided a rejoinder to the "mere empirical prediction" objection:

    "An important part of the internalist account lies in the idea of there being a 'sound deliberative route' from the agent's existing S to his P-ing. It is important that even on the internalist view a statement of the form 'A has reason to P' has normative force. Unless a claim to the effect that an agent has a reason to P can go beyond what that agent is already motivated to do - that is, go beyond his already being motivated to P - then certainly the term will have too narrow a definition. 'A has a reason to P' means more than 'A is presently disposed to P'. One reason why it must do so is that it plays an important part in discussions about what people should become disposed to do."

    Now, we can argue about the idea of a sound deliberative route, and that's an interesting discussion to have. Moreover, my own view is that internalism, for other reasons, cannot possibly succeed. But the idea of a sound deliberative route is plainly meant to supply the "normativity" you folks are so concerned about. I urge you to go beyond Parfit's somewhat superficial reading and dig into the details, as the position is more subtle than he makes it out to be.

    1. Hi Vanitas, I'm not sure where you think I made that interpretive error? In any case, I'm not sure how it affects my core worry here, which is that whatever descriptive / content-based constraints you place on internal reasons, there had better be more to them then merely meeting that description, but if there is more to them then we should be able to isolate that notion of "something more" from the content-based constraints in question, which will yield a coherent notion of unconstrained (external) reasons.

      On your second point, note that the "empirical prediction" I reference is not the flat-footed one that the agent will in fact be motivated to perform the act in question. Rather, it's a prediction of a more complicated empirical relation holding between the act and the agent's motivational set (e.g., that the act in question would actually serve to satisfy the agent's desires -- something they might, prior to deliberation, not be aware of). It's still a mere empirical prediction, even if it is a prediction about something more complicated than just how the agent will actually act.

    2. Hi Richard,

      Since Williams is not in the business of providing a sufficiency condition, he cannot be in the business of claiming that a reasons-claim is either, in your words, "a complex concept"(first horn) OR "analytically equivalent to some descriptive sentence"(second horn). That's the problem. Your dilemma is thus not even remotely exhaustive. This is why Parfit's reading is so poor: it blinds us to the possibilities that are open to Williams by illicitly shackling him with a basically essentialist analysis of what an internal reason "is". The triviality objection is a non sequitur here because Williams is not performing a full-fledged conceptual analysis, which is what the Open Question Ar--oops, sorry, the Triviality Objection!--requires. ;) This confuses people who think that all a moral philosopher can do is provide analyses of moral concepts, but Williams' attack on the "Morality System" only requires the necessary condition, since his view is that the Morality System is committed to the denial of that condition.

      That said, you're right that there is still the issue of whether the content of Williams' complex necessary condition is purely empirical, and apologies if I misread your complaint here. This is tricky because (a) the explicitly normative notion of 'sound deliberation' seems to play a crucial role in the account, and (b) Williams denies that we can say, in advance, exactly what sound deliberation looks like. Thus, "sound deliberation" does not have determinate content, empirical or otherwise:

      "Since there are many ways of deliberative thinking, it is not fully determinate in general, even for a given agent at a given time, what may count as “a sound deliberative route”; and from this it follows that the question of what the agent has a reason to do is itself not fully determinate." (1995, 38)

      Now, suppose you're right and the condition is just a complex empirical prediction, appearances to the contrary. Still, in saying "A has reason to PHI" I am not *only* asserting the content of the necessary condition. Put another way, on Williams' view, the necessary condition might indeed be purely empirical, but this does not mean that reasons-statements reduce to empirical ones, since there is no reduction, here.

      At this point, your thought is: "well, if this is just a necessary condition, then the EXTRA conditions will have to be non-empirical/normative!" Again, this presupposes that Williams is in the business of "filling in" the extra content in order to provide an analysis of reasons. It also presupposes that there IS a coherent and complete conceptual analysis of "A has reason to PHI" to be had, a completely optional presupposition under which Williams does not need to operate. I repeat, Williams does not have to provide jointly sufficient conditions, because all he needs for his attack on the "Morality System" to go through is for his necessary condition to hold up. So, forgive me for thinking that Parfit's misreading is really getting in the way, here!


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