Reasons are facts that count in favor of some intentional attitude, such as a belief, a desire, or an intention to act. And reasons to A (where ‘A’ stands for some intentional attitude) can be divided into two subcategories. First, there are those reasons to A that are provided by facts about the intentional object of A. For instance, the fact that some state of affairs is one in which many people experience pleasure is an object-given reason to desire that that state of affairs obtains. Second, there are those reasons to A that are provided by facts about the state of A-ing. The fact that an evil demon will cause me to suffer if I don’t desire that P is a state-given reason to desire that P. In this post, I hope to provide a simple argument for the conclusion that so-called state-given “reasons” are not genuine reasons. The argument will be stated mainly in terms of reasons to believe, but I think that it applies mutatis mutandis to reasons for other intentional attitudes.
The argument starts off with the assumption that there are certain plausible principles that describe the transfer of reasons from one intentional object to another. I’ll call these principles transfer principles. One plausible transfer principle holds that a reason to believe that P is equally a reason to believe what P entails (whether or not one knows that such is entailed by P). Another holds that a reason to adopt an end is equally a reason to intend to perform the necessary means to achieving that end (whether or not one knows that such is a necessary means to achieving that end). The problem with state-given “reasons” is that they don’t seem to transfer from one intentional object to another in accordance with plausible transfer principles. Yet genuine reasons do transfer in accordance with plausible transfer principles — that’s what makes reasoning possible, after all. Thus state-given “reasons” are not genuine reasons.
To illustrate, take the case where an evil demon has threatened to punish me if and only if I don’t believe that the shape of my computer screen (hereafter “CS”) is a triangle, when in fact CS is a rectangle. If the above transfer principle is correct and if the fact that the evil demon has threatened me is indeed a reason for me to believe that CS is a triangle, then it would follow that I have a reason to believe that the sum of CS’s angles is 180°, for this is entailed by the proposition that CS is a triangle. But, of course, I have no reason to believe that the sum of CS’s angles is 180°. I don’t even have a state-given reason to believe this, for the evil demon has threatened to punish me only if I don’t believe that CS is a triangle. I may believe that the sum of CS’s angles is 360° without incurring the demon’s wrath. In fact, I may even have a reason to believe that the sum of CS’s angles is 360°; suppose that I’ve measured them and recorded their sum.
Now someone might object that to have a belief that P is to be disposed to rely on P as a premise in further reasoning, and thus, to sincerely believe that P, one must be disposed to believe what one believes that P entails. But just assume that I’m a complete novice regarding geometry who doesn’t know that the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180° or that the sum of the angles of a rectangle is 360°. If that’s so, I can sincerely believe that CS is a triangle (and everything that I believe that this entails) while also believing that the sum of its angles is 360°.
It seems, then, that we must either reject very plausible transfer principles or reject the notion that state-given “reasons” are in fact genuine reasons. The correct choice is obvious: we should reject the notion that that state-given “reasons” are genuine reasons. For one, rejecting such plausible transfer principles would severely impair our ability to reason. If reasons don’t transfer from one intentional object to another, then how can we reason from one intentional object to another (e.g., from one proposition to another or from ends to means)? For another, whatever intuitive force there is to thinking that the fact F (i.e., that an evil demon has threatened to punish me unless I believe that P) is a reason for me to believe that P can be captured, as Parfit has pointed out, by the thought that F is a reason to want to believe that P and to intend to do whatever might cause one to believe that P. If we have such reasons, it seems entirely unnecessary to posit that, in addition to these reasons, we also have a reason to believe that P.
What do others think?