Explaining Reasons: Where Does the Buck Stop?

Article excerpt

IT WOULD BE GOOD IF I could finally knock this paper into shape. That gives me a reason to sit down and work on it. Or is it the other way around? Is it that I have a reason to get on with it and that is why it would be good to do so? According to the buck-passing account of value, it is the latter: Something is good because it gives us a reason. The reverse view has it that one has a reason for doing things because doing so would be good in certain respects. The buck-passing account offers an explanation of the close relation of values and reasons: of why it is that the question whether something that is of value provides reasons for action is not "open." Being of value simply is, its defenders claim, a property that something has in virtue of its having other reason-providing properties. The buck-passing view combines various virtues: First of all, it offers an explanation of the close connection between values and reasons for actions. Yet the account of reasons for actions that it proposes need not make any reference to values. Furthermore, in at least one of its versions, it is a reductive account of values in the sense that it does not appeal to evaluative properties in explaining value. According to reductive buck-passing accounts, values are to be explained neither in terms of evaluative properties, nor by reference to our (perhaps suitably corrected) attitudes. Rather, so the suggestion goes, we can explain value in terms of non-evaluative, natural properties that provide reasons for those attitudes. But unlike rational attitude theories of value (1), which some regard as the historical predecessors of buck-passing (2), the buck-passing account is not amenable to the project of developing a metaphysical reduction of normative properties. The reduction it offers is an intra-normative one: After all, the explanation of values is in terms of reasons for actions.

The generic idea of buck-passing is that the property of being good or being of value does not provide reasons (3), but it is other properties that do. There are, however, various versions of the account which differ in their understanding of those "other properties." Briefly, they are the following ones:

(BP-1) x is of value (is valuable or good in a certain respect), iff it has other non-normative, natural properties that provide reasons for actions.

(BP-2) x is of value, iff it has either (a) other evaluative or (b) non-normative, natural properties that provide reasons for actions.

There are instances of both (a) and (b).

(BP-3) x is of value (is good), iff it has other evaluative properties that provide reasons for actions, but goodness itself is not a reason. (4)

In this paper I am going to explore all three versions of the view. I will begin with explaining the buck-passing account in greater detail, and then investigate T. M. Scanlon's arguments for it (in section I). In section II I will offer an argument, which, I believe, raises serious doubts about a central presupposition of buck-passing in two of its versions (BP-1 and BP-2), namely that non-evaluative properties are reason-giving. Finally I argue that the third version, BP-3, is also unlikely to succeed (in section III).

Let me issue a warning: All three versions of the buck-passing account have at times been ascribed to Scanlon. There is some textual evidence to do so in each case, but not enough to exclude any of them. Be that as it may, my main interest is not in interpreting Scanlon. All three propositions are interesting in their own right, and worth thinking about. So I will keep all of them in play without claiming that one or the other is Scanlon's "true" or even current position. Scanlon's discussion of buck-passing is extremely terse, but it has the merit of forcing us to consider the various possibilities. The important point is that we now have various interesting, but mutually incompatible, articulations of the buck-passing view on the table. …