Thursday, 27 December 2018

An Objection to Lord’s Reasons Responsiveness View

In his 2018 volume, The Importance of Being Rational, Errol Lord defends the thesis that “what it is to be rational is to correctly respond to possessed objective normative reasons” (p. 3).  Lord calls this thesis “Reasons Responsiveness”.  According to Lord, Reasons Responsiveness entails the following principle:

Necessarily, you are rational if and only if you correctly respond to reasons. (Lord 2018, p. 23)

In this blog post, I will briefly explain why I believe that Equivalence—and by extension, Reasons Responsiveness—is false.

To better appreciate Lord’s proposal, let us consider how it explains the irrationality incurred from having inconsistent beliefs or intentions.  Many (if not most) contemporary action theorists attempt to explain why it is irrational to have inconsistent beliefs or intentions in terms of something along the lines of the following wide scope norms.

Belief Consistency:
Rationality requires that [if one believes P, then one does not believe ¬P]

Intention Consistency:
Rationality requires that [if one intends to F, then one does not intend to ¬F]

Lord deems such wide scope norms unnecessary given that the same explanatory work may be done by Reasons Responsiveness. Simply put, in all cases in which an agent has inconsistent beliefs or intentions, they are also failing to respond appropriately to their reasons.  According to the present view, if one possesses decisive reasons to adopt a certain attitude or course of action, then one is rationally required to adopt that attitude or course of action (p. 11).  Moreover, if one possesses decisive reason to believe P, then one ipso facto possesses decisive reason not to believe ¬P.  Hence, we may explain why it is irrational for an agent to have inconsistent beliefs in terms of the requirement that they respond appropriately to their reasons.  The upshot is that we are free to dispense with Belief Consistency and Intention Consistency, and adopt Reasons Responsiveness in their place.

Pace Lord, I maintain that there are cases in which an agent violates Intention Consistency, but in which they do not violate Reasons Responsiveness. Hence, Reasons Responsiveness is unable to explain all cases in which an agent is irrational for having inconsistent intentions.

Consider an agent, let’s call her Edna, who goes to the supermarket to purchase some soup. She finds two identical cans of Campbell’s Tomato soup—can A and can B—on the shelf and forms the intention to take can A rather than can B.  Since both cans are indistinguishable in every salient respect, each reason Edna possesses to (intend to) take can A—e.g., she loves soup, Campbell’s Tomato soup is her favourite, the soup is on sale, etc.—is also a reason she possesses to intend to take can B.  What Edna lacks is a reason to take can A rather than can B or a reason to take can B rather than can A. Even so, Edna may intend to take can A rather than can B.  Moreover, she does not appear to be guilty of irrationality for so doing.

If the above analysis is right, then this poses a problem for Reasons Responsiveness.  This is because while it is rationally permissible for Edna to intend to take can A rather than can B, it is not rationally permissible for her to simultaneously intend to take can A rather than can B and intend to take can B rather than can A.  In sum, even in picking situations, one is not rationally permitted to have inconsistent intentions.  However, as we already noted, Edna has no reason to (intend to) take can A rather than can B. We therefore cannot explain why Edna is being irrational by saying she fails to respond appropriately to her reasons.  Ex hypothesi, she has none.  Hence, we appear to have a case in which an agent has inconsistent intentions but does not fail to respond correctly to the reasons she possesses.

Lord anticipates a similar kind of objection in chapter 2 of his volume.  However, the case Lord considers differs from the above example in a crucial respect.  Lord considers a case in which an agent possesses sufficient (but not decisive) reason to intend to F and sufficient (but not decisive) reason to not intend to F.  Such cases appear to pose a problem for Reasons Responsiveness since possessing merely sufficient reason to intend to F does not entail possessing decisive reason to not intend to ¬F.  The apparent upshot is that Reasons Responsiveness appears to allow that an agent with merely sufficient reasons may have inconsistent intentions.

Lord solves this problem by appealing to a principle he calls “Intentions Attenuate” (p. 31).  According to Intentions Attenuate, if one adopts the intention to F, the adopted intention attenuates the strength of all competing intentions, including the intention to ¬F.  Intentions Attenuate contrasts with the popular suggestion that forming an intention generates additional reasons to do what one intends.  Lord rejects this proposal due to bootstrapping concerns (and rightly so).  Intentions Attenuate avoids the boostrapping problems because it does not entail that merely forming an intention generates additional reasons.  Rather, it entails that an intention may either intensify or attenuate the weight of one’s pre-existing reasons.  However, it is the very feature of Intentions Attenuate that allows it to avoid boostrapping concerns that preclude it from solving the problem being limned in this post. Since Edna has no reason to intend to take can A rather than can B, there are no reasons to be either intensified or attenuated.  The upshot is that Intentions Attenuate is of no help to Lord in addressing the present worry.

One possible diagnosis of why Intentions Attenuate is ineffective against the Edna example is that it appears to presuppose that an intention is rationally permissible only if one has at least some reason in its favour.  (See p. 38 of Lord’s discussion.)  However, I believe intentions stand in contrast to belief in precisely this regard.  Plausibly, it is rationally permissible to adopt a certain belief only if one has some reason in its favour, at least when it comes to beliefs about external world.  For example, I cannot rationally believe that the number of stars in the Milky Way is even given that I lack any reason to believe that it is.  However, as the rational permissibility of picking illustrates, it may be rationally permissible to adopt an intention even if one has no reason in support of the intention.  Given this fact, we cannot hope to make sense of the consistency norms governing intentions in terms of an agent appropriately responding to her possessed reasons.

Lord, E. (2018) The Importance of Being Rational. Oxford University Press.


David Duffy said...

Your example reminded me of Buridan's Ass, where one solution is to intend A and not intend B, even though A and B are equally reasonable choices.


David, Thanks for your comment. I agree that Edna may respond to her picking situation by intending to take can A and not intending to take can B. However, I also think there are other ways she may respond. Among them, I believe she may intend to [take can A rather than B], where the proposition that appears in square brackets is the content of the intention. Consider: it is one thing to intend to vote for Obama and another thing to intend to vote for Obama rather than Trump. (For example, unless one were greatly miss-informed, it would be impossible to have the latter intention even if one had the former, given that Obama never ran against Trump.) What I claim is not that Edna having the intention to take can A rather than B is the only rationally permissible response to a picking situation but that it is one rationally permissible response to a picking situation. If this is granted, then that is all I need for the efficacy of my objection to Lord's proposal.