Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Reducing Reasons

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Reducing Reasons

Article excerpt

REASONS ARE CONSIDERATIONS THAT FIGURE in reasoning. When I believe or act for a reason, my reason plays a role in the reasoning through which I arrive at my belief or action. Of course, not all of the reasons for which I believe or act are good reasons; not all explanatory reasons are normative or justifying reasons. (1) If reasons in general are considerations that figure in reasoning, normative reasons are considerations that figure in sound reasoning.

This broad view about the connection between normative reasons and sound reasoning is widely held. (2) Those who hold it often regard it as obvious--boring, even. As Kieran Setiya puts it:

   It is a harmlessly illuminating principle that connects two things
   which surely must be connected: facts being reasons on one side,
   and the process of ... thinking, inference, deliberation, on the
   other. (3)

Jonathan Way describes the link between reasons and reasoning as "near platitudinous":

   Reasons are meant to guide us to act, believe, desire, or otherwise
   respond. But to be guided by reasons just is to engage in
   reasoning, broadly construed. So it is hard to see how reasons
   could fail to be appropriate premises for reasoning towards
   [phi]-ing. (4)

The idea of a connection between normative reasons and sound reasoning does seem platitudinous. However, I think it actually has surprising and far-reaching metanormative implications. The view that reasons are linked to sound reasoning may strike us as "harmlessly illuminating," but only because we tend to assume that soundness is a normative property, in which case the view merely relates one normative phenomenon (reasons) to another (soundness). I shall argue, though, that soundness is also a descriptive phenomenon, one we can pick out with purely descriptive terms, and that the connection between normative reasons and sound reasoning therefore provides the basis for a reductive account of reasons. Like all proposed reductions, this one must confront some version of G. E. Moore's open question argument. I shall argue that a reductive view rooted in the idea that reasons figure in sound reasoning is well equipped to meet the open question challenge head on.


Following both Setiya and Way, I shall take as my starting point the idea that normative reasons are premises in sound reasoning. More specifically, I shall follow Way in supposing that a consideration R is a reason for some response 9 just in case R is a premise in sound reasoning that concludes in [phi]-ing. (5)

As Way has pointed out, the hypothesis that reasons are premises of sound reasoning sheds light on a number of puzzles about reasons. It explains what the various kinds of reasons--reasons for action, reasons for belief, reasons for desire, and so forth--have in common, why we can have normative reasons only for attitudes we can reach through reasoning, and why some of the considerations that count in favor of a response are the wrong kind of reason for that response. (6) The hypothesis also raises a number of questions, the most pressing of which concerns the nature of soundness. Just what is sound reasoning? The short answer is that sound reasoning is good or correct reasoning: to reason soundly is to reason well--to reason as one should. If that is all we can say about soundness, then the hypothesis that normative reasons figure in sound reasoning really will be harmless. I believe we can say more, though. I accept the short answer: sound reasoning is good or correct reasoning, and so soundness is indeed a normative property. However, I think it is also a descriptive property--a property that can be grasped or picked out in purely descriptive terms. To argue for this surprising conclusion, I shall begin with the case of doxastic reasoning, or reasoning about what to believe. I shall then argue that we can understand the soundness of any form of reasoning along the same lines we understand the soundness of doxastic reasoning. …

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