Monday, 3 May 2010

On Reasons and Animals: Ben's Reply to Me

What follows is Ben's response to my previous post:

Thank you for paying such close attention to my comments and for such a thorough and thoughtful reply. Let me mention that I really do not want to deny that animals are agents (that would be absurd) or that we can give explanations of animal behavior using ‘reason’ in (one of) its ordinary meanings. That is, animals are properly and non-metaphorically spoken of as agents and as behaving intelligibly (i.e., in ways that make sense given certain considerations).

That said, I still have a complaint about your conclusion that the monkey’s transition of thought in Hurley’s case (from A is dominant over B and B is dominant over C to A is dominant over C) gives the monkey a reason to believe that A is dominant over C—or, as you take them to be equivalent, justifies the monkey’s belief that A is dominant over C.

You’ve brought out two nice distinctions in your last two posts: first, the distinction between responding to reasons and responding to reasons as such; second, the distinction between reasons-for-which and reasons-with-which. I assume that these are not identical distinctions, but they share something important in common. In both cases, it takes an extra capacity to be the sort of creature to which the latter terminology is applicable. Human beings but not all agents act for reasons as such, and the same is true with respect to reasons-with-which. And this is the case because human beings have the capacity for reflection. I think this is all important and true.

But I also think that it does not show that a transition of thought like the one in the monkey case is reason-giving for the monkey. This is the claim at issue. You say that the transition of thought is reason-giving, but you deny that the monkey acts on the recognition of a reason as such (and so also, I assume, you deny that the monkey acts with a reason). I agree that the monkey does not act on the recognition of a reason as such (or with a reason). But I deny that the transition of thought gives the monkey a reason. The reason that I deny this is that I do not think that the rationality of the transition (i.e., its intelligibility in response to the relevant considerations) gives the monkey anything. From the monkey’s perspective, nothing is more or less justified before or after the transition of thought. Equivalently: nothing is justified for the monkey.

I think there is a similarity between the inanimate object and the monkey. Neither the monkey nor the knife, say, can gain a reason on the basis of a transition of thought. The explanation of why this is so in each case reveals a difference between the monkey and knife. The knife cannot gain a reason based on a transition of thought because the knife cannot have thoughts. The monkey cannot gain a reason based on a transition of thought, I claim, because the monkey cannot have reasons in the relevant sense. The relevant sense is, by your own lights, that the monkey’s belief is justified.

Now I can see two ways of making sense of the claim that the monkey’s belief is justified. First, the belief may be justified for the monkey. But this, I claim, requires that the monkey be able to countenance a reason as such. And we both deny that. Second, the belief may be justified for us when we consider things from the monkey’s perspective. This is the view I tried to advocate for in my comment to your previous post. You quote a sentence from those comments to the effect that we project our deliberative perspective on the monkey when thinking about the intelligibility of the monkey’s behavior. I stand by this claim. And I don’t think that it ignores the distinction between the monkey and the knife. We might project on both, even if the one can have thoughts and the other cannot.

To press you further, I think that there is an important distinction missing from this discussion. We might cite a reason for the monkey’s behavior in the sense of a consideration that explains why the monkey did such-and-such. But this is not yet to say that the consideration justifies anything. A justifying explanation requires that the one to whom the explanation is given has the capacity to take up and evaluate the explanatory considerations. And the monkey cannot do this, I think. We can, I think, because we have the capacity to reflect on possible determining grounds of our behavior and choose between them—we have the capacity for reflection.

My view allows us to still account for the ordinary practice of saying things like the reason for which the monkey leapt into the tree was that there was a predator approaching, where ‘reason’ has justificatory force here. This explains the monkey’s behavior in terms that engage our rational, reflective capacities. When we think about the circumstances from the monkey’s point of view, we take the approaching predator to be a reason to jump into the tree, in the sense of a consideration that justifies doing this. We talk as though the monkey took this as a justifying consideration as well. But this talk is metaphorical. (The same goes for the transition of thought regarding dominance.)

What might not be metaphorical is talk that attributes an explanatory role to the consideration that the predator is coming. I think that is the case. But then this consideration does not give the monkey a reason in the sense you are after. You claim that reason-givingness involves justification. And explanation of the sort we have here does not justify anything to the monkey. The monkey is not a proper recipient of justifying explanations because the monkey cannot take them up and assess them in the right way. The monkey does not have the relevant capacity for reflection. We do have this capacity, and we also have the capacity to take up the monkey’s perspective from within our own deliberative point of view. And when we do this, the same considerations that explain things about the monkey’s behavior also justify this behavior to us. But the move from explanation to justification requires the capacity for reflection. And I want to insist that if the monkey does not have this capacity, then the monkey cannot be given a reason, where this involves justification. I also want to insist that this does not undermine the propriety of our talking about the monkey having a justification so long as we recognize that our language is in this case metaphorical.

The upshot is this: we can talk of the monkey having a reason for doing something in both a metaphorical and non-metaphorical sense. In the first case, it is metaphorical because we take reasons to be justifying and the monkey cannot receive justifications. In the second case it is not metaphorical because we take reasons to be explanatory and the monkey’s behavior is explained by certain considerations engaging the monkey’s motivational states and issuing in the relevant behavior. (In case you are worried that the two collapse because, say, a good explanation justifies, I should note that I don’t think the monkey is given an explanation of his behavior here, and for similar reasons—the monkey does not have the requisite capacities to receive this sort of explanation. So I suppose I would still take issue with the (perhaps weaker) claim that the monkey receives a reason, where this involves the monkey receiving an explanation. The sense in which I think the monkey receives a reason is that he is made aware of a consideration that engages his motivational states and issues in the relevant behavior. This reason both explains and justifies his behavior, but the explanation and justification are given to us, not to the monkey.)

One last point. You are right that we may be incorrect about why the monkey leapt into the tree. Perhaps it missed the predator but saw some food in the tree. So we might mistakenly attribute mental states to the monkey, and our ordinary linguistic practices are sensitive to this. But I don’t see how this bears on the issue of whether or not our talking as if the monkey gains a justification is metaphorical or not. If we misattribute a mental state to the monkey, this impugns both the claim that the relevant consideration is justifying and the claim that it is explanatory. If there is no representation of a predator to justify the leap into the tree, then there is equally no representation of a predator to engage the motivational states of the monkey. I don’t see a special problem for my view here.



Thanks for taking the time to compose such a lengthy and thoughtful reply, Ben. You may be surprised to learn that I agree with most of what you have to say. First off, I do not believe that Hurley’s monkey is justified or that it is a candidate for justification. In fact, the entire reason I introduce Burge’s distinction between the two types of epistemic warrant – namely, entitlement and justification – is in order to make room for a type of warrant that falls short of justification (See my post: Burge's Alternative to M-rationalism). Following Burge, I see entitlement as an externalist notion, it does not require that the entitled agent have the conceptual resources to “understand or think about the entitlement”. Thus, while I hold that Hurley’s monkey is entitled, I do not hold that it is justified. However, I part ways with Burge in that I use the word ‘reason’ to refer to considerations that provide an agent with entitlement. (Note: Burge reserves the word only for considerations that provide an agent with justifications.) Thus, while I hold that Hurley’s monkey may have a reason, I do not hold that the reasons provide it with a justification for its beliefs. This is because (consistent with Burge) I see justification as an internalist notion; one that requires that the justified agent be able to understand and reflect on her reasons. In short, I hold that one may possess reasons even if one cannot reflect on them.

In my post, McDowell on Rational Animals , I adumbrate a few of my motivations for using the word ‘reasons’ in a way that has application to both types of epistemic warrant. The particular motivation you took issue with, and which generated the present exchange, is my claim that the more inclusive usage of the word ‘reasons’ comports with our ordinary linguistic practice. You appeared to impugn this motivation on the grounds that, when applied to animals, the word is only being used metaphorically. My response was to insist that the usage of word, in the case of animals, is literal; owing to the fact that they are agents with genuine psychological states (i.e., states with representational content). Insofar as it is a possessor of psychological states, Hurley’s monkey can be said to have a perspective. This represents a fundamental difference between Hurley’s monkey and inanimate objects; one that (inter alia) makes the attribution of agency to the former, literal, and to the latter, metaphorical. This is what I took to be the crux of our disagreement. On the question of whether or not Hurley’s monkey is justified, our views seem perfectly consistent.

It has been a central contention of my last two posts that the word ‘reasons’ should not be restricted to considerations that justify. This is an important claim given the goals of my project – namely, to widen the philosophical usage of the word ‘reason’ so that it more closely mirrors our ordinary usage of the term. More saliently (given the present point of contention), I think reflection on our ordinary usage of the word ‘reasons’ reveals that it does not only have application to agents that are capable of reflecting on them. Moreover, since I agree with Burge (and you) that justification requires that the justified agent be able to reflect on her reasons, then the only way that this aspect of our ordinary linguistic practice may be preserved would be to widen the application of the word ‘reasons’ to include more than simply justification. Thus, the assumption you attribute to me – namely, that reasons only count as such if they justify – is not one I share. On the contrary, it is precisely this assumption that I am attempting to undermine by insisting on a more inclusive use of term, one that is not limited to justification-conferring psychological transitions.

Ben M-Y said...


First off, sorry to have misread you and attributed to you a position you do not hold. Sorry also for arguing against your position on the basis of this mis-attribution. I am glad to be put straight, and glad that you do not hold that the monkey is given a justification on the basis of his transition of thought.

In order to get clearer on your view, let me ask you some questions. (point me to earlier posts if you've already answered them there).

1. How does the notion of entitlement you are interested in relate to the notion of explanation? In particular, you note that you understand entitlement to be an externalist notion. And you understand justification to be an internalist notion. On which side of the divide would you place explanation? My interest in this issue has to do with my interest in the appeal to the connection between the having of psychological states (esp., those that motivate behavior) and the having of reasons. On familiar theories of reasons, they either/both justify or/and explain. It seems that on your view reasons entitle (and may also justify). So I wonder in what ways your view may be revisionary and in what ways it may map onto more familiar views about reasons.

2. I wonder how at odds our two interpretations of what is going on when we talk about non-human animals having reasons really are. I claim that this talk is metaphorical in the sense that it involves projection of our agential perspective, which perspective includes capacities that the animal on which we project it does not (and is not normally thought to) have. If I now have it right, your view claims that this ordinary talk of non-human animals having reasons is not metaphorical. They have reasons in the sense that they have considerations that give them entitlements. And entitlements do not require the capacity to take them up in any way. Here is a question about what might mark a difference between our views: Do you think that the notion of entitlement itself is independent of our capacity to take up and think about entitlements? I would be inclined to think it is not. That is, we attribute entitlement to a creature on the basis of the sort of projection I have been describing. But this attribution is apt because of our capacities. The externalist aspect of the notion of entitlement blocks the objection that it is not apt to attribute entitlement to a creature that cannot take it up as such. But is there something about the notion of entitlement as you understand it that also blocks the objection that
it would not be apt to attribute entitlement if there were no creature that could take it up (and esp. the creature making the attribution must be able to take it up)?

Ben M-Y said...


One more thing. I wanted to be a bit clearer what I mean by 'metaphorical' ways of speaking.

My favorite view of metaphor is given by Max Black in 'Models and Metaphors'. He argues for an 'interaction view' of metaphor, on which a metaphorical expression is not reducible to a literal paraphrase because it essentially involves an interaction between literal expressions and ideas associated with them in order to transmit some further idea(s). Metaphors, for Black, are extensions of our language that, among other things, allow us to apply it to new insights. He argues against other views, on which metaphors are merely poetic or otherwise expendable devices. Black thinks that to banish metaphor would be to banish the communication of some ideas.

I bring this up because I want to note that by calling a way of speaking metaphorical, I do not mean to in any way disparage that way of speaking. It would be a mistake to think that metaphors only convey expendable information. Likewise, it would be a mistake to think that something is shown to be less important or less real just because our way of speaking about that thing is metaphorical. Relevant to this discussion, it would be a mistake to associate the claim that talk of monkeys having reasons is metaphorical with the claim that monkeys do not really have reasons or that the sense in which they may be said to have reasons is not really important.