A Constraint on Reasons?

Non-philosopher readers, I am interested in your reactions as always, but be aware this a somewhat esoteric philosophy post.

There is a difference between practical reasons that many philosophers label with various terms “good” reasons versus “motivating reasons” or “objective” versus “subjective” reasons. “Agent neutral” and “agent relative” (though these aren’t quite the same).

Canonically, objective reasons are independent of the agent’s knowledge. So, I may have a reason to run over and help my neighbor, who is dying, at this moment, of a heart attack, but I will not go do that if I don’t know it’s happening. Here, my ignorance blinds me to objective reasons.I’m not morally at fault or anything, but nonetheless there is a reason for me to do something that I do not know about.

You could push these two categories together. You could say that my objective reasons are just the same as the reasons I take myself to have. Then, by definition, I could never be ignorant of my objective reasons. Of course, as one can see, this would have very disastrous theoretical consequences. We would be forced to say that if I took myself to have reason to ride a Pegasus, then I would have reason to ride Pegasus, even though there is no such animal.

Here is my question though (philosophers, or anyone who cares), should we countenance objective, normative, “good” reasons that cannot, in principle be acted on. So take this example. I’m looking at the door of a restaurant and inside is a surprise party. I take great joy in being surprised by surprise parties, but I take no pleasure in having a surprise party thrown for me that I find out about. So, on the one hand, it seems there is an objective reason for me to go into the party (on the assumption that our own happiness can sometimes provide reasons), but I could never ACT on that reason, because to act ON a reason SEEMS (someone smart might show me how the following clause is not required) to require that you know the reason. And if I know there is a surprise party inside, then my reason for going in — my happiness — now revokes this reason. It would be impossible for me to act on the reason that the presence of the surprise party provided.

So, I’ll ask again, should we countenance such reasons at all, or is it a requirement on practical reasons, that we must be able to act ON them or FOR them rather than just in accord with them.

NOTE: The example I used comes from Mark Schroeder in his “Slave of the Passions.”


2 Responses to “A Constraint on Reasons?”

  1. 1 SS
    March 6, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Fair warning: I haven’t read the Schroeder book, nor am I super familiar with the area.

    Seems to me that you *could* act on the reason, though perhaps under a different guise. Suppose I’m standing next to you, and I know both that surprise parties make you happy and that there’s a surprise party inside (say I’ve been enlisted to bring you to the restaurant). Suddenly you vacillate, thinking you’d rather eat elsewhere, and I, getting somewhat desperate, say ‘You have a reason to eat here.’ If you think I’m trustworthy, and knowledgeable about your objective normative reasons, then you may think that you indeed have a reason to eat here, and act on that reason, whatever it is (or so it seems to me). I suppose you might say that your reason is no longer that there’s a surprise party, but instead that your friend indicated to you that you have a reason to enter. So maybe my answer is no answer. Then again, you might insist that your reason for acting is the reason your friend indicated (whatever it is) and not that your friend indicated it.

    Excellent blog, by the way. I enjoy checking in from time to time. Good luck with your applications.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      March 7, 2011 at 12:38 am

      Yes, thanks for reading and for this comment. What you’re describing is absolutely the move that needs to be made, and I need to look at the Schroeder book again too, because I’m fairly certain this is what he says — that you can act on the reason without knowing what that reason is. He says some other stuff too though, so maybe this will topic requires a more in-depth post (and possibly a paper from me in the longer term).

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