Critical Précis by Keshav Singh
In “All Reasons are Fundamentally for Attitudes,” Conor McHugh and Jonathan Way argue, unsurprisingly, that all reasons are fundamentally for attitudes. As with all their work on reasons and normativity, both co- and individually authored, this is a fruitful and thought-provoking paper, with much in it that I agree with.
Conor and Jonathan (hereafter C&J) begin by noting that in normative theorizing, reasons for action are often taken as the paradigmatic or fundamental case, which leads to a variety of puzzles about how there could be reasons for attitudes. C&J’s aim is to turn this common assumption on its head, arguing that reasons for actions are in fact the non-paradigmatic and non-fundamental case.
On the alternative approach they suggest, reasons for action are derivative from reasons for intention. This is what they call the Special Hypothesis. As they see it, reasons for action are the primary obstacle to acceptance of what they call the General Hypothesis, which is that all normative reasons are fundamentally for attitudes. In arguing for the Special Hypothesis, they aim to remove this obstacle, thus clearing the path for the General Hypothesis.
C&J spend most of the paper arguing for the Special Hypothesis. In particular, they work with this version of it:
Special Hypothesis, Simple Version: For p (a fact) to be a reason to φ (an act type) is for p to be a reason to intend to φ. For p to be a reason to not–φ is for p to be a reason to intend to not-φ. (153)
C&J first provide some initial motivation for the Special Hypothesis with the claim that you are criticizable with respect to reasons to act only insofar as you are criticizable with respect to reasons to intend. Take Jack and Jill, two agents who each have conclusive reason to φ, but fail to φ. Jack fails to φ because he fails to even intend to φ, whereas Jill intends to φ, and thereby tries her best to φ, but fails anyway. Here, only Jack is rationally criticizable with respect to his intentions and with respect to his actions; the Special Hypothesis gives the correct verdict.
Following this initial motivation, C&J present two main arguments for the Special Hypothesis. Each of these arguments relies on a different assumption about reasons. The first argument relies on the assumption that reasons are subject to a response constraint: they must be capable of being responded to. The second argument relies on the assumption that reasons are potential premises of good reasoning. C&J argue that as long as we accept these assumptions, we should accept the Special Hypothesis.
Here’s how C&J use the response constraint to support the Special Hypothesis. The basic idea is this: if p is a reason for you to φ, then you can respond to p by φ-ing on that basis. But in order to φ on the basis of p, you must, in φ-ing, execute an intention held on the basis of p. In general, responding to some consideration involves treating it as a normative reason. So, in φ-ing on the basis of p, you not only treat p as a reason to φ, but also as a reason to intend to φ.
The next step is this: some consideration is a normative reason if and only if it’s appropriate to treat it that way. So, if p is a reason to φ, then its appropriate to treat p as a reason to φ. But in doing so, you also treat p as a reason to intend to φ, so it must also be appropriate to treat p as a reason to intend to φ. And if it’s appropriate to treat p as a reason to intend to φ, then p is a reason to intend to φ. Thus, if p is a reason to φ, then it’s a reason to intend to φ.
The final step in the argument is that the Special Hypothesis provides a good explanation of the above conclusion: all reasons to act are also reasons to intend because to be a reason to act just is to be a reason to intend. Moreover, as C&J point out, competitors to the Special Hypothesis, like the view that reasons for intention are instrumental to reasons for action, are incompatible with that conclusion and so can’t explain it at all.
C&J’s second main argument for the Special Hypothesis uses the assumption that reasons are potential premises of good reasoning to argue that it is reasons for intention, not reasons for action, that play an analogous role in practical reasoning to the role played by reasons for belief in theoretical reasoning. In theoretical reasoning, one forms a belief by reasoning about the object of one’s belief: a proposition. Reasons for belief, then, are reasons having to do with the believed proposition.
As C&J argue, the analogue in the practical case would be this: in practical reasoning, one forms an intention by reasoning about the object of one’s intention: an action. Reasons for intention, then, are reasons having to do with the intended action. The reasons that figure in practical reasoning aren’t fundamentally reasons for action any more than the reasons that figure in theoretical reasoning are fundamentally reasons for propositions.
This, according to C&J, gives us a nice, unified picture of how reasons figure in reasoning: a reason for a response is a premise in good reasoning about the object of the response that then concludes in that response. The view that practical reasoning fundamentally involves reasons for intention fits better with both the Special Hypothesis and this unified picture. By contrast, C&J argue, the view that practical reasoning fundamentally involves reasons for action would yield a strangely disunified picture of the role of reasons in reasoning.
After presenting these two arguments for the Special Hypothesis, C&J move to considering and replying to objections, which I won’t have space to recount. They then conclude by returning our attention to the General Hypothesis, which they take to have been adequately supported by establishing the Special Hypothesis. As a reminder, the General Hypothesis is the hypothesis that all normative reasons are fundamentally reasons for attitudes.
C&J mention two major upshots of the General Hypothesis. The first is that once we see reasons for attitudes, not actions, as the paradigmatic and fundamental case of normative reasons, the common view that normative reasons are grounded in value no longer seems plausible, because paradigmatic reasons for attitudes don’t have to do with value-promotion. It instead starts to seem more plausible that reasons are grounded in fittingness, or their role in good reasoning.
The second upshot is that it no longer seems plausible that there is any general connection between reasons and voluntary control. Rather, the general connection between reasons and control is one between reasons and what we might call attitudinal control – a form of nonvoluntary control in which we revise our attitudes directly in response to reasons. The voluntary control we have over actions, then, is the outlier, not the norm.
Recognizing these upshots of the General Hypothesis, C&J conclude, allows us to see how, if we stop taking reasons for action to be the paradigmatic case, many of the puzzles about reasons for attitudes vanish.
I’ll start by emphasizing just how much I agree with here. I agree that the case of reasons for action is the main obstacle to the General Hypothesis. I agree that the General Hypothesis is true. And I think C&J are absolutely right about its upshots. The view that reasons are grounded in value, and the illusion of puzzles about voluntary control over attitudes, have both been mistakes brought on by the focus on reasons for action.
I also can’t resist mentioning that C&J’s views are very congenial to something I’ve argued for in a forthcoming paper of my own. In that paper, (“What’s in an Aim?” forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Metaethics), I argue that starting with reasons for attitudes instead of reasons for action yields a much more promising version of constitutivism about normative reasons.
According to the view I defend there, reasons for attitudes are grounded in the constitutive correctness conditions of attitudes, which are generated by how those attitudes constitutively represent their objects. Normativity is fundamentally about attitudes because normativity is fundamentally about how we represent the world. Or, as C&J write at the end of their paper, “Attitudes constitute our orientation toward the world, in which we can get things right or wrong, be justified or not. Our actions change the world in more or less beneficial ways—but it is only insofar as they express or embody our orientation toward the world that they fall within the realm of reason and normativity” (170). I think this is absolutely right as well.
Despite agreeing with C&J about so much, I’m not quite convinced that the Special Hypothesis is the best route to the General Hypothesis. This is partly due to some of the objections to C&J’s arguments for the Special Hypothesis that I haven’t discussed, which will hopefully come up in further discussion. But I want to discuss a different, broader reason, which is that it’s not clear to me that there isn’t a much more direct route, from the nature of intentional action to the General Hypothesis.
At the end of section 1 of their paper, C&J consider another alternative to the Special Hypothesis, according to which reasons for intentional action are prior to both reasons for action (intentional or not) and reasons for intention. As they say, they mostly ignore this view because they don’t know of any defenses of it. In a footnote, they mention that this view might appeal to some defenders of the view that intentional action is prior to intention, such as Thompson, McDowell, and Setiya.
Interestingly, however, they don’t mention the progenitor of that sort of view, whose influence is a large a part of why philosophers like Thompson, McDowell, and Setiya defend it: Anscombe. And while Anscombe didn’t write using the terminology of normative reasons, I think taking Anscombe’s views about intention and intentional action seriously yields essentially the alternative to the Special Hypothesis that C&J mention before setting it aside.
Why am I bringing up Anscombe here? Because I think the kind of view of intentional action I attribute to Anscombe has the potential to provide a much more direct argument for the General Hypothesis than C&J provide – one that does not require thinking of intention as in the first instance a mental state that plays a generative role in action.
As I interpret Anscombe, what makes an action intentional is not that, in acting, one executes an intention, understood as a separate entity. Rather, what makes action intentional is that it’s a case of doing something where what you’re doing is partly constituted by your agent-level representation of what you’re doing. If this is right, then intentional action is itself partly constituted by an attitude that takes your action itself as its object. Indeed, I argue in the aforementioned paper of mine that such representations are the source of normative reasons for action.
If reasons for action are fundamentally reasons for intentional action, and what makes action intentional its being partly constituted by a certain attitude, then that is already enough to establish that reasons for actions are fundamentally reasons for attitudes. We don’t have to commit to the view that there is some separate attitude of intention, distinct from the action itself, from which reasons for action are derivative.
The point can be put another way that doesn’t rely on anything quite so Anscombean. Plausibly, whatever your view of intentional action, there is something about the action itself that makes it intentional. And that something can’t be solely behavioral – it must be something attitudinal. Thus, intentional action must be partly constituted by some kind of attitude in virtue of which it is intentional. My thought here that this is all we need to establish that reasons for intentional action are fundamentally reasons for attitudes – we don’t need to establish the stronger claim that reasons for action are fundamentally reasons for intention in the sense that requires C&J’s two arguments.
To be clear, I’m not claiming that whatever this attitude is that’s constitutive of action isn’t itself a form of intention – we might call it, as some do, intention in action. What I am claiming is that it seems to me that C&J, with their two arguments for the Special Hypothesis, argue for something stronger than what they need to establish the General Hypothesis. They argue that reasons for action are derivative from reasons for intention understood as a distinct existence, which I think is a much more difficult claim to argue for.
One final way of putting it is that perhaps we should instead think of reasons for action as derivative from reasons for a particular form of intention, understood as whatever attitude it is that is partly constitutive of intentional action, and in virtue of which intentional action is intentional. As far as I can tell, this is sufficient to establish the General Hypothesis without making either of the arguments C&J make, and without making direct use of the two assumptions from which their arguments proceed. And in doing so, we might be able to avoid some of the thornier objections C&J grapple with in their paper.
Ultimately, this is not so much a criticism of what C&J argue for as a suggestion that perhaps there is a significantly shorter route to their conclusion – a route that becomes available once we think about intentional action less like normative theorists tend to and more like action theorists (especially Anscombeans) do. An interesting upshot of this is that, far from being a problem for the General Hypothesis, the view that intentional action is prior to intention might actually make the General Hypothesis exceedingly easy to establish. Given that the truth of the General Hypothesis is what C&J are ultimately concerned with, my hope is that this is a welcome upshot.
Though there is much more to say, I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks to Conor and Jonathan for this great paper. I really enjoyed thinking about it, and look forward to further discussion.