Monday, August 29, 2005

Inaccessible Reasons

Shah (following Williams) holds that:
1) R is a reason for X to Φ only if R is capable of being a reason for which X Φs.

Suppose that God will reward people who act from virtuous motives. This is clearly a reason for them to be virtuous. But it's not a reason that they can recognize, or act upon, because in doing so they would be acting from self-interest rather than virtue. So they wouldn't get the divine reward. Thus it would be self-defeating to act for this reason. The continued existence of the reason is dependent upon its not being recognized. Once it is recognized, the reason will disappear. Nevertheless, it seems clear that, so long as nobody is aware of it, the divine reward is a reason for them to act virtuously. So (1) is false. Just as there can be unknowable truths, so there can be inaccessible reasons, i.e. considerations that count in favour of an action even though they cannot possibly "guide" it.


  1. Why would self-interest be inconsistent with virtue?

  2. In the present context I'm taking 'virtue' to be synonymous with 'altruism'. (If you disagree with that, it doesn't matter, simply pretend that I wrote about "altruistic motives" in the post above.)

  3. One could argue that accepting religion assists one in being altruistic by recognising that at our root we cannot trust ourselves to behave altruistically unless we perceive there to be a reward. Therefore the net effect of the decision (as opposed to a short term effect) is altruistic. One could also argue that examining a decision without regard to the long term consequences is inappropriate.

    there is also a question regarding whether acting in self interest is "the opposite" of virtue it could just have zero effect thus the decision does not reduce the amount of virtue it just has no effect so there is no argument against but a potential argument for.

    Of course I am just suggesting these arguments are potential arguments as opposed to ones that are applicable in all cases.

  4. One could also argue that religion is somthing one might come to believe because at some instant it was the logical decision and then be unable to change back when the situation changed because belief in the religion itself implies that is irational.

  5. Reading the post again, one may conclude that ultimately nobody is alruistic! This denies the existence of Love--people can and do act purely out of concern for the welfare of others.

  6. Nothing I've said denies this. All I was suggesting is that one cannot act altruistically because there is a divine reward for doing so. That wouldn't be altruistic any more. But they can still act altruistically for other reasons, so long as they don't notice this one.

    I should also clarify, particularly for Genius, that this post isn't really about religion or altruism. I just used that as an example. The topic here is inaccessible reasons: whether there can be a reason to do something which couldn't possibly be a reason for which you do that action.

  7. Richard,

    I like the example. You might (nay, would!) really enjoy Roy Sorensen's paper on unknowable obligations. There are similar examples involving modesty if, as some have suggested, modesty requires a kind of ignorance regarding oneself. The details are filled out in, I think, one of Julia Driver's J. Phil papers.


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