Philosophical Studies

, 147:235 | Cite as

Reasons and impossibility

  • Ulrike Heuer


In this paper, I argue that a person can have a reason to do what she cannot do. In a nutshell, the argument is that a person can have derivate reasons relating to an action that she has a non-derivative reason to perform. There are clear examples of derivative reasons that a person has in cases where she cannot do what she (non-derivatively) has reason to do. She couldn’t have those derivative reasons, unless she also had the non-derivative reason to do what she cannot do. I discuss a number of objections to this view, in particular two: (1) The objection that if there were reasons to do what one cannot do, many of those would be ‘crazy reasons’, and (2) the worry that if there were such reasons, then agents would have reasons to engage in futile deliberations and tryings. I develop an explanation of ‘crazy reasons’ that shows that not all reasons to do the impossible are crazy and only those that are need to be filtered out, and, regarding the second objecting, I show that the reasons for trying as well as for taking the means to doing something—instrumental reasons in a broad sense—are different from the reasons for performing the action in the first place. They are affected by impossibility, and we can explain why that is so. The view I argue for is that a person may have a reason to do what she cannot do, but she does not have a reason to try to do so or to take means to realizing the impossible.


Reasons for action Impossibility Instrumental reasons Trying and intending Bart Streumer on reasons and impossibility 



I am grateful to Daniel Elstein, Gerald Lang, Rob Lawlor and Georgia Testa for their very helpful discussions of an earlier draft. This essay was at some point part of a longer paper, which I had an opportunity to discuss at 2007 SPAWN conference at Syracuse and at the LSE Popper seminar. I am grateful to both of these audiences for all their helpful comments. Finally, I would like to thank Joseph Raz for numerous discussions and comments on earlier versions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of LeedsLeedsUK

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