Sunday, September 04, 2005

Constitutive and Extrinsic Reasons

Pamela Hieronymi, in 'The Wrong Kind of Reason', distinguishes between "constitutive" and "extrinsic" reasons for an attitude. The difference is that they address different sorts of questions. Roughly put, constitutive reasons speak to whether the content of the attitude warrants taking the attitude towards it. So, in case of beliefs, these would be reasons or evidence that the thing believed is true. Extrinsic reasons, by contrast, speak to the question of whether the attitude itself is a good one to have, independently of the merit of its content. So, if I offer you a million dollars to believe that grass is blue, then that's an extrinsic reason for the belief.

Constitutive reasons for believing p are then reasons that bear on the question whether p. They are truth-indicative reasons. Further, as Hieronymi notes, "Finding them convincing and so settling the question on which they bear amounts to believing." This ties in with the subjective evidence principle and the phenomenon of deliberative transparency that I was discussing the other day. Constitutive reasons bear on a question the settling of which amounts to the belief. Extrinsic reasons are different. They bear on a different question, the question whether it would be good to believe p. (Settling this question amounts to a second-order belief, that is, a belief about this question, a belief about whether it would be good to believe p. But they do not constitute a belief whether p.)

This seems a helpful distinction, and one that illuminates Musgrave's distinction between reasons for belief and reasons for the thing believed. In particular, extrinsic reasons are reasons for believing, but not reasons for the truth of the thing believed.

Now, Hieronymi calls these the "wrong kind" of reasons, but I'm not sure what is meant by this. Perhaps it's simply a way to highlight that they are a different kind of reason, and not one that speaks to the truth of the belief (as we might normally expect reasons to do). I don't see what more it could mean. It does seem undeniable that extrinsic reasons do exist and that they genuinely are reasons. Surely evidentialists cannot deny this. So what are they denying when they claim that truth-indicative reasons are the only reasons for belief?

Evidentialists must say that extrinsic reasons aren't reasons for believing per se, but rather are reasons to get the belief. But what substance is there to this distinction? It seems like a mere semantic quibble to me. Everyone agrees that there are constitutive and extrinsic reasons for belief, and we merely disagree about how to describe them. Anti-evidentialists want to call both kinds "reasons for belief" (whilst still recognizing, of course, that they are very different kinds of reasons). Evidentialists want to give extrinsic reasons a different name, instead calling them "reasons for getting the belief". But what's in a name?

The important thing is that there are non-evidential considerations that can count in favour of beliefs. If clapping my hands would save the world, then this is a reason to ("get" myself to) clap my hands. In exactly the same way, if believing that p would save the world, then this is a reason to believe p. It's what you ought to do, no matter the truth of p. You should take whatever means you can to achieve this end. None of this can plausibly be denied. So what in the world is this debate about!?

Update: retraction here; see also comments.


  1. This reminds me a lot of hilzoy's recent post regarding Explanation vs. Justification over at Obsidian Wings, which is well worth reading. I do remember thinking at the time, that what she calls explanations, when considered beforehand and from the perspective of the person whose actions are being explained, look an awful lot like justifications. In retrospect and from a distance, the distinction seems clearer. I dunno.

  2. Update: Hieronymi's 'Controlling Attitudes' paper argues that there is real substance to the believing/getting-to-believe distinction. To quote (pp. 25-27):

    "Consider, again, ordinary action. In performing an ordinary intentional action, one answers for oneself the question of whether to f, therein intends to f, and thus—providing all goes well— f’s intentionally. Even though the intention and the action are distinct—one might intend but fail to act (perhaps due to sudden paralysis)—both the intention and the action are answerable to the same set of reasons, viz., those that bear on whether to f. You are answerable to these reasons just by intending to f—regardless of whether you succeed in f-ing. And if f-ing is a non-basic action, such as preparing dinner or getting a gallon of milk, then each bit of the process is answerable to the constitutive reasons for intending the larger action. Buying a gallon of milk may require going to the store, standing in line, and handing over some cash. Insofar as each of these is part of getting milk, the why-question to which they are vulnerable will be answered, in part, by the reasons bearing on whether to get milk.

    Ordinary intentional actions display a uniformity of answerability from intention, through process, to successful execution. Turning, then, to believing for extrinsic reasons. As an ordinary mortal, you might take certain reasons to show a belief good to have, therein form a managerial intention to bring yourself to believe, execute that intention through some process (perhaps by conducting an investigation or taking a pill), and, if you are successful, thereby come to believe. In performing this managerial action, you are answerable, at each stage in the process, to the reasons which bear on whether to bring yourself to believe—to the constitutive reasons for the intention to bring yourself to believe (which are extrinsic reasons for believing). Bringing yourself to believe is thus an ordinary, non-basic, intentional action one might perform in response to extrinsic reasons for believing.

    But notice, further, that if successful this managerial action—bringing yourself to believe p—will create answerability to reasons which bear on whether p. After all, if successful, this action will create a belief, and in believing p one is answerable to such reasons. Importantly, however, neither the managerial intention to bring yourself to believe nor the activities involved in bringing yourself to believe are themselves answerable to reasons which bear on whether p. You have not yet answered the question whether p, and so are not yet answerable to reasons bearing on that question. The managerial intention and action are answerable only to reasons bearing on whether to bring yourself believe. Only if your action is successful will you become answerable to the constitutive reasons for believing.

    Thus we now see that believing stands distinct from the managerial activity of bringing oneself to believe, not because the believing stands at the end of a multi-step process, but rather because bringing yourself to believe and believing involve very different kinds of answerability."

  3. Hey...I stumbled onto your blog while searching for Hieronymi. What a great blog! I'm a senior philosophy undergrad at UCLA. I've taken Heironymi before...and I'm writing a paper for Calvin Normore on her wrong kind of reasons paper. I'm in the department's honors program and trying to talk myself out of law school so that I will apply to grad school instead. Best! Barron-at-ucla-edu


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