Monday, December 31, 2007

Reasons and Justification

I'm working on a paper and would like some input on an argument I'm putting together.

The thought is basically this:
If reasons (for action) are supposed to be the kinds of things that can/do justify actions, and we adopt an instrumental model of reasons that grounds all of our reasons in our desires/interests/ends/what-have-you, then do we need to craft an argument for why our desires/interests/ends/what-have-you are themselves justified? I'm working from an analogy from epistemology. If we take a foundationalist approach to knowledge, then the "foundation" needs itself to be justified in order to confer justification on anything built upon it. The concept of "the given" (or variations thereof) is usually invoked to this end. If we're going to preserve the justificatory force (assuming we want to - I'm just assuming this for the moment) of our reasons for action, then, do we need to make a similar case for the justification of our desires if we're going to preserve the thought that instrumental reasons are justifying reasons?

Here's a nice 'diagram' of the question:

Simplified Model of Instrumental Reasons:
Desires (taken as basic) for X -----> Instrumental reasoning says Y is a good/efficient/whatever way to achieve X ----> Reason for agent to Y

Simplified Model of Foundationalism:
"The given" (whatever it is) -----> "Good" reasoning says "the given" entails a particular proposition P ----> Reason for agent to believe P.

The typical problem for foundationalist epistemology is that "the given" stands itself in need of justification, or stands in need of an argument saying why "the given" (whatever it is) is justified if its really going to give justifying reasons for the agent to believe P. What I'm wondering is whether or not we need a similar argument in the case of instrumental reasons is even needed (whether or not we think such an argument is possible - I happen to think it might not be, but thats not the issue at hand) if we're going to consider reasons for action as being justifying reasons. In the end my worry is this: if we do need such an argument to preserve the justificatory force of reasons for action, AND if one cannot be given - say, for instance, that desires are just not the kinds of things that can be justified or unjustified, or are not the kinds of things that can be apt or inapt - then are we just left in the position of being unable to say that our actions are ever justified/unjustified at all? Just as with the epistemological problem, if the "foundation" is not justified (whether that is taken to mean unjustified or just a-justified), then is the Reason at the end also not possessed of any justificatory force too?

Thanks for your help!


  1. I like this topic, Corwin, as I am an instrumentalist at heart who is plagued by just such concerns. I'll say that I know very little about epistemology, so I'll just address the practical reason side of the issue.

    I wonder if part of the problem is over what you mean when you say that reasons "justify" actions. "Justified actions" has a very moral flavor, and a simplistic means/ends instrumental practical rationality would stop short of claiming "moral" justification. I could deny that I have normative reasons, for instance, thinking that the sole source of my reasons for acting comes from my desires. I might claim in this case that my actions were justified in a sense, but only in a kind of bland way.

    To take desires as basic is to say that desires obviously (if mysteriously) have this power of favoring certain ends over others. Such things are beyond our control for the most part, it seems. Many people, and you seem to be picking up on this line, point out that if desires are out of our control then following them blindly is irrational. Joseph Raz holds this, I think, and Thomas Scanlon, too. Why should we think that these inclinations I have count in favor of any actions? As you point out, it seems that anything I'm justified in following should itself be justified.

    An alternative approach would apparently be to think that some things are inherently desirable (befitting of desire, perhaps), and I should aim to desire those things. Since I find all going theories of grounding "the desirable" as something that we should aim at thoroughly implausible I retreat to the more simplistic instrumental theory.

    I think the correct picture is something like this: we've got all these inclinations and urges inside of us. Sometimes it takes introspection on our part to see which one is the strongest (since we seem to be able to take account of intensity versus longevity this isn't always easy) and we go with whatever desire wins out. We should then take the necessary means to our ends if we're to fulfill the demands of practical rationality. The actions that ensue are only justified qua practical rationality, but perhaps not justified in any morally robust sense.

    That was kind of "stream of consciousness" and maybe not so helpful...

  2. Arthur:

    Thanks for your comments. I think you're right that the idea of a "justified action" has a very moral (broadly construed) flavor, and that's in large measure part of my point.

    You say, "Sometimes it takes introspection on our part to see which one is the strongest (since we seem to be able to take account of intensity versus longevity this isn't always easy) and we go with whatever desire wins out. We should then take the necessary means to our ends if we're to fulfill the demands of practical rationality."

    What I'm wondering really is whether there's anything *rational* about being instrumentally rational in this way. i.e., do I have any reason to believe that I should take the means to my ends unless I have reason to believe that my ends are worthwhile, that my desires are justified, etc...

    Do we end up having to just split-off theoretical and practical reason entirely? Am I then never justified in believing that should take the means to my ends, even if, practically speaking, I should take the means to my ends?

    I have a real difficulty avoiding the kinds of normative language that may seem to load the questions I'm asking, but thats part of the problem itself as I see it... there seems to be no way of avoiding the kinds of normative questions and language of justification, even if we declare that we can't satisfactorily answer them...

    So they don't appear non-sensical or moot questions, and thats kind of my point in the end. It's not that the demand for (normative) justification is incoherent or nonsensical (in large measure because the questions and language seems unavoidable). Just that, possibly, the demand cannot be met on a purely instrumental model...

    So it seems we might be left with only two options:
    (1) Actions just aren't the kinds of things that are justified.
    (2) Actions are/can be justified, but its not by reference to purely instrumental considerations - unless we have a background argument for why desires are justified or apt in which case actions are/can be justified *not* directly by reference to instrumental considerations, but rather by reference to whatever it is that justifies (or judges apt) our desires...

    I'm a little steam-of-consciousness too at this point... long day, so sorry for any lack of clarity... but thats kind of where the thought is going for the moment..

    Thanks again! I appreciate the help!

  3. Corwin,

    Seems like a fruitful line of argument you've got. I especially like the emphasis on a possible asymmetry between theoretical and practical reason. The distinction between the two kinds of rationality has always bugged me, actually. I often think there must be only one kind of reason, not two (or three if "reasons to feel" are a candidate).