Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Reasons for action


Today’s post is brought to you by the letters W for ‘work avoidance behaviour’, A for Audi, and R for Reasons for Action.

My reasons for selecting Robert Audi’s entry in the Routledge Companion are to do with my interest in his work on ethical intuitionism, and in the subject matter itself. Plus work avoidance of course!

Reasons, Audi tells us, are central to the understanding of personhood and of moral obligations. Audi’s project is to explore different kinds of reasons and their relationships with other elements in moral motivation, judgement, and action. His initial exploration is of normative, motivational, and explanatory reasons for action.

Normative reasons (also called practical reasons) are reasons there are for doing something (whether prudential or moral), like using an umbrella or giving to charity. Motivational reasons are reasons someone possesses, like giving you a lift because I promised to do so (my promise partly explains why I give you a lift). And explanatory reasons are reasons why someone acts, reasons that are more than merely causal explanations (such as I did X because I was drunk). If this is not very clear, don’t worry, at this stage it wasn’t for me either.

Luckily (for me at least) Audi offers further explanation. Normative reasons, he explains, tend to correspond to facts. My reason for opening my umbrella is connected with the fact that I will get wet if I do not. My reason to open my umbrella is that I will get wet if I do not, and that reason holds even if I do not decide to open the umbrella.

Talking about umbrellas doesn’t seem all that important to moral thinking, and it isn’t. But, normative reasons include moral reasons. To say that one should or ought to Φ is to say that one has a normative reason to Φ. The really tricky bit is determining the role played by moral reasoning in providing motivation for action. If I judge that I ought to Φ does this mean that I have some motivation to Φ? If I am not motivated to Φ even though I think I have strong reasons to Φ, then am I irrational and thus not a moral agent? There are a number of theories about the interaction between motivation and normative reasons – Audi mentions a few – but there definitely isn’t space to go into them here (and I’m insufficiently knowledgeable in any case).

Audi’s commentary after this is extremely dense and very, very interesting. But it’s also so tightly written that I can’t think of any way to easily summarise it. However, you can get an idea of the issues at stake by thinking about an example. Suppose I believe that a pie is poisoned, giving me a reason not to eat it. However, it turns out that the pie is not poisoned. My reason not to eat the pie rests on a false belief. Now imagine the pie is actually the property of a very angry psychopath who really, really likes pie. If I eat the pie he will kill me, however I am unaware of this fact. Now, I have a reason, based on a false belief not to eat the pie, but is nevertheless true that my eating the pie will result in my death. It’s true that I do not eat the pie because I believe I will die because of it. And it’s true that I will die if I eat the pie. But, my reason for not eating the pie is based on a false belief. The connection between motivations, reasons, and truth is pretty complex. This is relevant to morality because I might act in an apparently praiseworthy way but for all the wrong reasons – have I done the right thing in such circumstances, say I push you out of anger, but in doing so move you out of the path of an oncoming car? And if I act for the wrong reasons, but I believe them to be the right reasons – such when I give you a pill thinking it will cure you and it turns out to be arsenic – am I praiseworthy in those circumstances?

There’s much more to reasons than I had been aware of – they can motivate, justify, and explain actions. They can refer to the content or aspects of beliefs and desires or mental states. I’m keen to dig further, and luckily there are still plenty of chapters that touch on these issues still to read. Definitely an aspect of moral philosophy worthy of careful consideration.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Reasons for action

  1. Fascinating read, thanks.

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