Welcome to our Ethics review forum on Errol Lord‘s The Importance of Being Rational (OUP 2018), reviewed by Nathan Howard. Excerpts from the blurb and the review are below, but you can read both in their entirety via OUP’s website and Ethics, respectively. (Though of course, you are welcome to participate in the forum even if you haven’t read either.)
The book abstract:
The Importance of Being Rational systematically defends a novel reasons-based account of rationality. The book’s central thesis is that what it is for one to be rational is to correctly respond to the normative reasons one possesses. The book defends novel views about what it is to possess reasons and what it is to correctly respond to reasons. It is shown that these views not only help to support the book’s main thesis, they also help to resolve several important problems that are independent of rationality. The account of possession provides novel contributions to debates about what determines what we ought to do, and the account of correctly responding to reasons provides novel contributions to debates about causal theories of reacting for reasons. After defending views about possession and correctly responding, it is shown that the account of rationality can solve two difficult problems about rationality. The first is the New Evil Demon problem. The book argues that the account has the resources to show that internal duplicates necessarily have the same rational status. The second problem concerns the ‘normativity’ of rationality. Recently it has been doubted that we ought to be rational. The ultimate conclusion of the book is that the requirements of rationality are the requirements that we ultimately ought to comply with. If this is right, then rationality is of fundamental importance to our deliberative lives.
From the review:
The Importance of Being Rational is wonderfully clear and sensibly organized. One of its major strengths is its synthesis of some of the best insights in epistemology and metaethics concerning rationality. Lord is attracted to discussions in epistemology because those discussions often concern questions about how an agent’s evidence supports their attitudes taken individually, not collectively. Because the type of irrationality to be explained in these cases is that of a single attitude, claims about coherence relations between attitudes offer far less natural explanations of irrationality. Consequently, thinking about rationality as the epistemologist does gets a reasons-based account of rationality off on the right foot. Accordingly, Lord’s account steers closer to the epistemologist’s tack than the metaethicist’s, though Lord’s ambitions outstrip epistemology. As we’ll now see, however, this tack leads to rough water in areas where the epistemic domain is a poor guide to the rest of the normative.
One such place is the difference between creditworthy belief and creditworthy action. Lord’s disjunctive view offers a twofold distinction between ways of reacting for a reason. These two ways map cleanly onto the familiar distinction in epistemology between properly and improperly based beliefs. As a result, Lord’s analysis of the achievement of ex post rational belief is simple and elegant: ex post rational belief is simply belief for a sufficient normative reason.
By contrast, we need at least a threefold distinction between ways of acting for a reason, if we want to maintain the parallel analysis for moral creditworthiness. That’s because there are at least two kinds of normative reasons for action: prudential and moral. Only moral reasons are relevant to moral achievements or what’s morally creditworthy; prudential reasons are relevant to prudential achievements.
As a result, one reason not to go down Lord’s path is that his disjunctive theory of reacting for a reason immediately begins to proliferate once we accept that there are important differences between reasons for action. If we accept Lord’s disjunctive strategy, we must hold that one is morally creditworthy just when one acts for a sufficient moral reason, where the relation named by ‘acts for a sufficient moral reason’ differs from the ones named by ‘acts for a sufficient normative reason’, ‘acts for a sufficient prudential reason’, ‘acts for a motivating reason that is a sufficient moral reason’, and so on. In sum, while a twofold distinction in reacting for a reason perhaps suffices in epistemology, it does not suffice in the broader normative domain. As a result, Lord’s disjunctive theory of reacting for a reason has a great many disjuncts, not merely the two he mentions.[…] [Riffing on a well-known case from Kant, Lord describes two grocers who are each moved to return correct change during a transaction by the fact that the change is correct. The first is motivated to do so only prudentially, because he knows that his business will thrive if he gains a reputation for returning correct change. By contrast, the other grocer returns correct change out of purely moral concern. Both grocers do the right thing (return correct change) for a fact that gives a sufficient moral reason (because the change is correct), but only the altruistic grocer is creditworthy.]
Whether we want to accept Lord’s disjunctivism hinges on whether we want to locate the difference between the altruistic and egoistic grocer in their motivating reasons themselves or in how they treat those reasons. At first blush, we should expect a Reasons Firster like Lord to prefer the former approach over the latter. But Lord wishes to serve two masters. In the introduction, Lord avows two foundational commitments: to the Reasons First research programme and to the Knowledge First research programme. As Lord clarifies in a footnote, his commitment to the Knowledge First programme extends only to the relative priority of the concept of knowledge over those of belief and justification, so it does not imply the contradiction that both reasons and knowledge are uniquely first. Nevertheless, it should not surprise us that these two commitments create a subtle tension in Lord’s view for both knowledge and reasons have been thought to uniquely underlie a wide range of norms.
Here’s a first pass at locating that tension: if we distinguish the moral way of acting for a reason from the prudential way of acting for a reason, reasons needn’t play a crucial role in Lord’s analysis of creditworthiness. We can simply claim that an agent is morally creditworthy just in case their act manifests the right kind of know-how, i.e., knowledge of how to use some fact as a sufficient moral reason. Although one can manifest this knowledge only in the presence of a sufficient moral reason, we don’t need reasons to play the foundational role distinctive of the Reasons First programme in this analysis of creditworthiness; knowledge alone appears to suffice.
But I think there’s a deeper worry with appealing to know-how in order to supplement claims about reasons. According to Lord, agents must satisfy both knowledge conditions with respect to a reason in order to possess it; they must be in a position to know the fact that gives the reason (the epistemic condition) and they must know how to use the fact as the reason that it is (the practical condition). Lord is in good company when he argues that what we should do is partly a function of the facts that we’re in a position to know. But because his practical condition is novel, he is alone in thinking that what we should do is partly a function of the reasons we know how to use. And I think we should resist being convinced here.
If I don’t have a concept of law, then while I can act for motivating reasons that are legal reasons, I cannot act for legal reasons, in Lord’s disjunctive sense of ‘acts for’. For example, I can hardly be said to act for a legal reason in this sense if the reason why I cross streets at intersections is that, when I don’t, I am often harassed by a dislikeable person in a curious blue suit with a gun and a badge. Lord’s theory explains why. Given my ignorance of the law, there is no rational route from the fact that a particular act is jaywalking to my refraining from the act. I simply don’t grasp the legal import of concepts like ILLEGAL jaywalking, so I don’t even possess legal reasons for action, given my ignorance, since I’m not in a position to manifest the know-how necessary for acting for a legal reason.
More generally, when we are deeply ignorant about a normative domain, we don’t know how to use the reasons particular to it. And on Lord’s theory, when we’re ignorant in this way, we don’t possess those reasons. So we’re exempt from obligations that originate in those reasons. But this exemption is too permissive: failing to know how to use a reason doesn’t eliminate its bearing on what we should do. For example, suppose that I am a deeply ignorant amoralist. I find others’ talk of moral requirement thoroughly confusing and confused. I am completely devoid of moral knowledge. I’m not in a position to manifest knowledge of how to use a fact as a moral reason. As a result, deeply ignorant amoralists do not possess moral reasons. Consequently, these amoralists are morally permitted to do anything; they lack moral obligations altogether.
This is a bad result — an amoralist’s ignorance doesn’t exempt them from moral responsibility. Just as ignorance of the law is no defence against it, an amoralist’s ignorance of how to use moral reasons does not grant them carte blanche for a life of theft, lies, and murder. The problem comes from tying possession to moral know-how. Agents can fail to have such know-how but they can’t fail to have moral obligations. So I think we should resist the temptation to tie possession to know-how. Lord’s competing commitments to Reasons First and Knowledge First pull him in the wrong direction here.
This tension takes nothing away from Lord’s lucid, rich, and ingenious account of rationality. Along with Kiesewetter and Wedgwood’s recent contributions, The Importance of Being Rational marks a new moment in debates about the nature of rationality. It is absolutely compulsory reading for epistemologists, ethicists, and meta-ethicists alike.