Thursday, 22 April 2010

McDowell on Rational Animals

In my previous post on this topic, I described Burge's alternative to M-rationalism. Following Burge, I hold that justification is not the only type of warrant. Moreover, consistent with Burge, I hold that a psychological transition need not be motivated by a higher order attitude that takes the transition as its object in order for that transition to provide that agent with a justification for beliefs based on that transition. However, I part ways with Burge by advocating a broader and more inclusive conception of reasons; one that has application not only to justification but also to entitlement. In a slogan: only reasons warrant. I wish to say that the transitive inference performed by Hurley’s monkey provides it with a reason that warrants the monkey’s inference-based belief. On this view, a transition may count as reason-conferring even if the agent lacks the conceptual resources necessary to recognise that it accords with a rational principle. This less restrictive conception of reasons has application to all potentially belief-yielding psychological transitions, not only the psychological transitions of rational animals (in the sense reserved for mature humans). In short, one does not have to be a rational animal to have a reason.

The broader and more inclusive conception of reasons presently on offer is consistent with that of John McDowell, who draws a distinction between “responsiveness to reasons” and “responsiveness to reasons as such”:
The notion of rationality I mean to invoke here is the notion exploited in a traditional line of thought to make a special place in the animal kingdom for rational animals. It is a notion of responsiveness to reasons as such. That wording leaves room for responsiveness to reasons, though not to reasons as such, on the other side of the division drawn by this notion of rationality between rational animals and animals that are not rational. Animals of many kinds are capable of, for instance, fleeing. And fleeing is a response to something that is in an obvious sense a reason for it; danger, or at least what is taken to be danger. If we describe a bit of behaviour as fleeing, we represent the behaviour as intelligible in the light of a reason for it. But fleeing is not in general responding to a reason as such. (Italics his)
Following McDowell, I reserve the title “rational animal” for those agents that have the capacity to conceive of reasons as such. What makes one a rational animal (in the sense reserved for mature human beings) is not the ability to possess reasons—for this is an ability shared by some non-rational animals—but the ability to recognise one’s reasons as reasons. However, as McDowell’s “fleeing” example illustrates, an agent does not have to be a rational animal in order to possess or be responsive to reasons simpliciter. Hence, a distinction is drawn between the necessary conditions for possessing reasons; conditions that do not require the possession of the relevant concepts; conditions that some non-rational animals can meet; and the conditions for having beliefs about one’s reasons; conditions that do require the possession of the relevant concepts; conditions that only rational animals can meet. One does not have to be a rational animal to have reasons; but one must be a rational animal to reflect on them.

This manner of speaking strikes me as more natural, from a terminological point of view, than that of Wallace and Burge. To say that a psychological transition is rational is, intuitively, to say something about that psychological transition. To say that an agent is a rational animal is, intuitively, to say something about that agent. But on the Wallace-Burge way of putting things, to say that a psychological transition is rational is actually to say something about the agent enjoying the transition. This is because both Wallace and Burge make the status of a psychological transition dependent on whether or not the agent enjoying the transition possesses certain conceptual capacities, a fact that I take to be independent of the nature of the transition itself. By contrast, the conception presently on offer makes a transition’s status as rational contingent on the transition’s non-arbitrary truth-conduciveness, and an agent’s status as rational contingent on the agent’s conceptual capacities. This preserves a clear distinction between the rational status of a transition and the rational status of an agent; providing us with at least the option of talking about the two independently, should we need to do so.

The need to speak of the rational status of a transition independently of the status of the agent performing it arises in the case of Hurley’s monkey. We can imagine circumstances in which inferences performed by Hurley’s monkey comply or fail to comply with the norms of rationality. It would therefore be useful to be able to talk about the rational status of such an inference even if we recognise that Hurley’s monkey is not a rational animal. Moreover, there may be instances in which there is simply insufficient empirical evidence available to determine whether or not a particular agent has the conceptual resources necessary to recognise reasons as such. It would therefore be useful to be able to talk about the rational status of a transition performed by an agent without having to take a stand on whether or not the agent is rational. As it happens, our ordinary linguistic practice already provides us with tools needed for such a task, for it is part of said practice to talk about the reasons that some nonhuman animal has to behave in such and such a manner or hold such and such a belief, while leaving fixed the question of whether or not that animal can respond to reasons as such. This brings us to the most straightforward motivation for adopting a conception of reason that has application to agents that cannot recognise their reasons as such, agents that may be entitled but not justified; to wit, such a conception comports with our ordinary linguistic practice.


Ben M-Y said...


You make some nice points in this post. But I remain unconvinced. So let me advocate for the position that a creature without the relevant higher-order capacities cannot be provided with a justification for its beliefs based on any movement of thought. I will simply advocate for this position by challenging your claims about ordinary linguistic practice in this post.

Your appeals to ordinary linguistic practices do not show what you take them to. Here is why. We quite often speak in ways that attribute agential capacities to objects that are clearly not agents. Consider: 'the knife cut me' or 'the sun rose'. In the first case, properly speaking, what I mean to express is that I cut myself with the knife. Our normal way of speaking allows me to attribute agency to the knife, but this need not mean that I think the knife is (in any way) an agent. In the second case, properly speaking (given my knowledge of the earth's rotation, etc.), what I mean to express is that the earth's rotation reached a point where the sun is now above the horizon (given my location on the earth's surface, etc.). Our normal way of speaking allows me to attribute agency to the sun, but again this need not mean that I actually believe that the sun moves (as opposed to the earth moving). So I do not think that the evidence you cite of our ordinary linguistic practices supports your claim that the relevant movements of thought are evidence that the non-rational creature/object has reasons.

I think that a better way to understand what's happening is this. We attribute rational agency to non-rational animals (and even inanimate objects) because we think about the relevant behavior/events (in these, but not necessarily all cases) by adopting the animal's (or object's) perspective from within our own first-personal point of view. So when we look at the behavior of Hurley's monkey, we consider its situation as if we were deciding what to do in those circumstances. Since we take such-and-such considerations to be reasons (since certain behavior is intelligible to us on the basis of these considerations) we attribute these justifications to the monkey in making sense of what it does. And then we talk about the monkey in these terms. But this need not entail that we attribute agency to the monkey any more than talking about the knife or the sun does. (Nagel makes some remarks in "Moral Luck" about adopting the first-personal point of view when evaluating others' behavior that I draw on here.)

The upshot is, I think, that the responsiveness to reasons and responsiveness to reasons as such distinction is apt, but that we make this distinction still from within the deliberative perspective we, as rational agents, take on the world. That is, we cannot infer from our use of the distinction, especially in ordinary linguistic practice, that the creature we talk about as responding to reasons really is doing so or has reasons to which to respond. Rather, what we can infer is that features of that creature's situation appear to us as helping to make sense of that creature's behavior. Perhaps we constrain our deliberative perspective enough to allow that the creature does not respond to these considerations as we would, that is, not as reasons. But the attribution of reasons-responsiveness may still be a projection.

Adrian Woods said...

I really like your thinking here. Robert Brandom (articulating reasons) stresses two approaches: one can begin with the similarities between us and other animals and struggle to articulate distinctions (Fodor). or one can begin by articulating the differences (for Brandom concepts through discursive practices)which you are then hard pressed to account for similarities.

Particularly see, Brandom's Reason in Philosophy. The first few chapters express his notion or Reason as a distinguishing feature of humanity. Great book.


Hey Adrian (we actually share our first names), Thanks for the pointer. I'll have to check out Brandom's book.

Ben, As always, thanks for the excellent feedback. I started typing up a reply in the comments section, but it was becoming much too long. So I've decided to respond to you in a separate blog post. You can find it here.