Jason Bridges

University of Chicago


Phil 31410, A03—lecture 16 notes

The modesty of rational-psychological explanation

(Scanlon and a look back at Nagel)


I.  Objection: Scanlon’s non-Humean account of reasons explanations implies that such explanations are unsatisfactorily incomplete.

Recall the simple view of reasons explanations we ascribed to Scanlon (see pp. 33-34):


Scanlon on form of reasons explanations: S φ-ed because she took there to be reason for her to φ.  Specifically, the considerations she took to count in favor of her φ-ing were that…..


Now, Scanlon wouldn’t deny that there might be more complicated things to say about the explanation of action than is readily fit into this form.  But that is because of the possibility of more complex judgments about the status of various reasons.  For one thing, there are different normative relationships between a reason and an action that might be thought by the agent to obtain: for example, a reason can require a given action (this is the only possibility Smith considers), or it can simply speak in favor of it.  And for another thing, there’s the question of how, in the agent’s view, potential competing reasons interact—e.g., whether one reason renders another wholly irrelevant or merely overrides it.  And so on.

But these complications all have to do with the contents of the agent’s judgments about what reasons she has.  For Scanlon, once we have stated the relevant normative judgments, and as long as these judgments are intelligible to us, then nothing else need be said (such as a desire) to explain why those judgments motivated the action that they did.  If one judges that one has a compelling reason for doing something, then one will try to do it unless one’s irrational.  And when one isn’t irrational, nothing more need be said about why the person did that than to cite the relevant judgments about reasons.

There’s no explanatory gap to be filled: the judgments about reasons explain the action—no further item need be posited inside the subject as providing a further motivational oomph.


Can this view be sustained?

As Scanlon acknowledges, we must acknowledge that there’s a difference between taking something to be a reason and being motivated by one’s taking that to be a reason.  For any given reason in the normative sense, it seems possible to imagine someone who is not moved by a perception of that reason to do whatever action it recommends.  And so, if one is moved by a perception of that reason, then one’s being so moved is a further fact about one, a fact above and beyond one’s having that reason in view—more generally, above and beyond one’s having made any judgments about reasons of the sort that, by Scanlon’s lights, are ascribed in a reasons explanation.

It seems to be a familiar experience to recognize something to be a reason but to be unmoved by it.  I may see great value in using the minimal free time I have on a given day to go exercising, but not be so inclined.  And when a person is in a state of great depression, that person may still in some sense realize that she has reason to do various things, but be wholly insensitive to their call.


This point ought to put you in mind of Smith’s objection to McDowell.  According to Smith, McDowell’s view that certain beliefs, for example moral ones, entail a “disposition of the will” rules out the possibility of weakness of the will.  It’s true that one way to fail to be moral is not to understand salient moral features of the situation one finds oneself in.  But surely it’s also possible, says Smith, to be fully cognizant of these features but to fail to act morally because one, say, gives in to temptation.

I suggested that a possible response on McDowell’s behalf would be that his view does not require that one actually act in the ways one realizes one ought to in light of one’s appraisal of the moral situation.  The “disposition of the will” that McDowell talks about can be overridden by other dispositions or states of the person in question.  Thus I might fully understand what it is to be shy and sensitive and know that Bob is, and hence on McDowell’s view be disposed not to treat him roughly, but do so nonetheless because that inclination is overridden by a still more powerful inclination to score points with my friends.


((It might seem obvious that this cannot be McDowell’s own view, especially when we take what he says in “Virtue and Reason” into account.  But I’m not so sure—there are interpretive complications.  In any case, as will become clear shortly, it seems to me that he grants too much to his opponent when he allows that if it were possible for there to be a person who has the moral knowledge a virtuous person has but does not try to act accordingly, then in the case of the virtuous person her possession of moral knowledge could not suffice on its own to explain virtuous action.  Since McDowell wants to claim that moral knowledge does suffice on its own to explain virtuous action, his acceptance of the conditional forces him to deny the antecedent.  But the conditional is suspect.

A further question here is whether one might even doubt the weaker condition that someone who understands what it is to be shy and sensitive must have some inclination (i.e., something that requires being overridden by something else if it is not to be efficacious) to do right by Bob.  For Smith might claim that someone, say, severely depressed might not so much as have an inclination (to then be overridden) to do what the moral or prudential circumstances require.

I’m not sure if this is a genuinely live possibility.  Could one fully understand what it is for someone to be shy and sensitive and have no inclination whatsoever to do right by Bob?  It certainly seems open here for McDowell to say that this is not a real possibility.  Someone who feels nothing of the force of this circumstance might plausibly be thought of as someone who doesn’t really know what’s going on, is too heedless or selfish or obtuse or wicked to comprehend what is at issue.))


In any case, this precise issue doesn’t arise for Scanlon.  A Humean who wishes to lodge an objection to Scanlon in this vicinity will take a somewhat different tack.  He will concede that Scanlon can recognize the difference between taking something to be a reason and being moved by it.

But his objection will be this: if we grant that there is this difference but still endorse Scanlon’s account of the form of reasons explanation, then we have no choice but to conclude that reasons explanations are incomplete, hence not good explanations after all.

For the existence of the difference shows that there is a crucial factor at work in the production of actions, one which a reason explanation, as construed by Scanlon, does not mention.


To elaborate: Scanlon allows that on at least some occasions, we can explain why a particular perceived reason is more motivationally efficacious than another (even when it’s judged by the agent to be a less compelling reason, normatively speaking).  Here we can find a role for, for example, desire in the attention-directed sense.  That one has such a desire explains why one focuses on certain reasons on a given occasion and ignores others.

Scanlon’s caveat, as we have seen, is that such desires are not properly construed as part of the reason for which we act.

And it is just this that prompts the objection now on the table.  For if we want an account of reasons explanations that reveals them to be satisfactory explanations, the account ought to show that talk of a person’s reasons provides the materials for a complete explanation of an action—that is, an explanation that doesn’t leave something crucial out, something that would need to be mentioned in order to make clear why the action occurred.


The issue harkens back to what Smith’s insistence on the need for a state with a world-to-mind direction of fit.  Such a state’s presence guarantees, as it were by definition, that one is motivated to do something.  But even if we thought that perceptions of reasons could move people to do things, their presence can’t guarantee that one will act.  And so they can’t by themselves constitute a complete reason for action.


II. Response: an inappropriate interpretation of the explanatory ideal of completeness?

I think that we can articulate an assumption that lies behind the Smith sort of Humean view, and that can be found to some degree in Stroud’s discussion of Hume as well:


An assumed requirement on reasons explanations: We have not given a full account of the reasons for which a person S φ-ed unless we have identified features of S that guaranteed that she would φ, or at least try to.


And how else could one meet this requirement unless one specifies as part of the agent’s reasons a disposition to do that (or at least something whose presence guarantees such a disposition)?


I think we can see Scanlon as rejecting this requirement (McDowell is another question).  The kind of understanding of an action that a reasons explanation yields is not of a sort that reveals the presence of circumstances in light of which that the action was inevitable.

Suppose I’m deciding whether to wash the car or sit around watching TV.  I see reasons in favor of both.  Suppose I then do one and not the other.  My action can then be explained by citing the reasons in favor of that.  Why must it be the case that they are such that we can see how my action was inevitable in light of them?  It wasn’t.  I could have gone either way.

And here’s the crucial point: whichever way I went, we would have had an adequate explanation of what I did, in that we would know the reasons for which I acted.


Now, one can allow, consistent with this, that there might be more to be said in explanation of why I went one way rather than the other.  Perhaps I’m predisposed to have my attention drawn to the pleasures of being lazy, and this here, as elsewhere, insured that I would attend more to the reasons in favoring of watching TV and then do that.

Scanlon explicitly allows that some such further material may be available in a given case.  But it needn’t always be available and even if it is, what is given is not a further account of my reasons, but something outside my reasons, hence something not properly part of a reasons explanation.


How do we know it’s not part of it?  Well, one might say, precisely because it is not anything in virtue of which I see that action as justified.  To make sense of people as agents we need to see the reasons for which they act.  Seeing those reasons provides a kind of understanding of what they do that is fundamentally normative.

There may well be more to say about what enabled or secured their so acting, but that is not in competition with the reasons explanation nor is it properly conceived as part of it.


III. Nagel on the unsatisfiable aspirations of reasons explanations

We may get a better sense of what is at stake here by looking at part of the Nagel reading that we didn’t discuss the first time around.


It will be a nice way of tying the course together to briefly return to this reading.


I find myself unable to make sense of the argument in such a way that it yields this strong conclusion.  But I’ll give an argument as close to that conclusion as I’m able to find.
Nagel’s argument for what our concept of agency commits us to:
Suppose an agent P performs an action which is intentional under the description “P’s φ-ing”.  Then

1.     P’s φ-ing can be fully explained by a reasons explanation.  (from supposition plus a plausible view of the nature of actions)
[The plausible view of the nature of actions is very close to the view we ascribed to Davidson, that we can spell out the idea of doing something intentionally in terms of the idea of doing of something for a reason.  Whether it’s the same depends on exactly what is meant by “fully”.]

2.     If there were alternatives open to P other than φ-ing, a full explanation of P’s φ-ing must explain why P A-ed rather than doing any of the alternatives open to her. (from general principle about explanation?)

3.     There were alternatives open to P other than φ-ing. (for Nagel, from a general view about nature of action.  But we can accept it as an empirical claim: as a matter of fact, when people do something intentionally, they could have done something else—minimally, they could have refrained from doing that.)

4.     Therefore, there is a reasons explanation of P’s φ-ing that explains why P φ-ed rather than doing any of these alternatives (from 2 and 3).

5.     But there is no such reasons explanation. (Again, Nagel argues for this premise on the basis of a general view about action.  But again, we can accept it as an empirical claim: at least most of the time, there is no reasons explanation available that explains why a person opted for one course of action rather than any of the other courses of action that were open to her.)

6.     Therefore, the supposition is false. (from 4 and 5).


Thus Nagel argues that the very idea of agency is an illusion.  People don’t act.


But why should we accept premise 2?


As Nagel’s discussion makes clear (p. 115), the premise stems from his assumption that all casual explanation is a matter of identifying circumstances that necessitated the event in question.  In the terms of our discussion from the first part of the course, Nagel assumes all causal explanation is law-involving explanation.

But why accept this?  By this point in the course, we’ve discovered much about reasons explanations that seems wholly distinctive of them—e.g., their normativity.  Why not hold that these features add up to a distinction form of explanation, one that is, for all that, causal?

If so, then perhaps they can constitute satisfactory causal explanations without meeting the requirement on reasons explanations we saw Smith to assume.  Perhaps they are satisfactory but for all that modest (modest in failing to meet the assumed requirement).


Obviously, this is a difficult issue.