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Are all reasons causes?

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In this paper, I revisit the Davidsonian thesis that all reasons are causes. Drawing on a better taxonomy of reasons than the one Davidson provides, I argue that this thesis is either indefensible or uninteresting.

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  1. The taxonomy that follows largely conforms to that introduced and defended by Maria Alvarez in her excellent book, Kinds of Reasons (Alvarez 2010). In the final chapter, Alvarez suggests that it might be valuable to reassess the question whether reasons are causes in light of her taxonomy. This paper is an attempt to undertake that project. (See also Alvarez 2009.)

  2. There are also explanatory reasons for events that don't involve agents (e.g. reasons why the bridge fell down) but these won't concern us here.

  3. The factivity requirement was noted by Grice in his useful account of personal reason constructions (2001). For a defense of both the factivity requirement and the knowledge requirement, see Unger (1975), Hyman (1999), Alvarez (2010), Hawthorne and Magidor (forthcoming), Littlejohn (2012). (Of course, given the well-known flexibility of the possessive, one cannot insist that all uses of the possessive reason construction correspond to personal reasons. For further discussion of this point, see Alvarez (2010), Hawthorne and Magidor (forthcoming). Given the close affinity between reasons for belief and evidence, one would expect a proponent of Williamson’s (2000) view that one’s evidence consists of what is known to be equally sympathetic to the view that one’s reasons for belief must also be known (and thus, by extension, to the view that one’s reasons for acting have to be known). Williamson himself is sympathetic; see his (forthcoming). There are dissenters to the view that the relevant constructions are factive; see Schroeder (2008), Davis (2005). I will not defend my preferred view against those dissenters here.

  4. As Alvarez (2010) notes, this reasoning process may be implicit or explicit.

  5. Admittedly, this is a bit rough and stands in need of refinement. Arguably, there are weird kinds of causal chains whereby a premise can lead to an action which would disqualify the premise from being a personal reason. But the refinement in the formulation of ‘leading to’ that would be required for cases like this will not be important to the points that I make below.

  6. For a defense of ideas along the lines of this principle, see again Hyman (1999), Alvarez (2010), Hawthorne and Magidor (forthcoming), and Littlejohn (2012).

  7. Similarly, I would wish to allow a secondary use of the term 'reason’. Jason can be the reason I was disgusted (in some sense of ‘reason’) even though Jason is an object and not a fact.

  8. Note that there is one respect in which I use ‘event’ broadly. Some might say that possessing a certain desire at a particular time is not an event, but rather a state. In this paper, my use of ‘event’ will encompass states as well. If John’s reason for leaving was that Maria was happy, the associated event that caused John to leave was Maria’s state of happiness.

  9. Davis shares the intuition that facts about the future cannot causally affect the present but uses this as a basis for denying the claim that facts about the future can be reasons. He writes: “Thus my reason for putting money in a savings account today may be that my son will go to college someday in the future. But nothing happening today could be a consequence of the fact that something will happen in the future. Hence ‘the reason why I am putting money in a savings account today is that my son will attend college in the future’ is false…. That something will be true in the future cannot explain the fact that I did something in the past” (Davis 2005, p. 57). But, as noted in the text, this position is very hard to maintain once one combines anti-skepticism about the future with a proper understanding of what it takes for something to be a personal reason.

  10. One might opt for skepticism here by claiming that there are no facts about the future (except for facts that are logically entailed by facts about the present or past.) Some people attribute this view to Aristotle; see the literature on De interpretatione.9.

  11. Here is one example of a case where a fact that is an agent’s personal reason for φ-ing causes an agent’s action but not by causing the knowledge that serves as a premise in that agent’s reasoning process towards φ-ing. Suppose my reason for walking across a bridge is that John is on the other side. And what causes me to know that John is on the other side is not his being there but his having told me earlier that he would be there. But suppose that, in this case, John’s being there causes the existence of the very bridge that allows me to walk to him on the other side. Here, his being there causes my actions but not by causing my knowledge that he is there.

  12. See also his discussion in Davidson (1967, p. 697): “The salient point that emerges is that we must distinguish firmly between causes and the features that we hit on for describing them”.

  13. For a good philosophical introduction to the progressive, see Szabo (2004).

  14. See Davidson (1963) on this point.

  15. Might one argue that in the special case where the beliefs and desires render the action under description d rationally intelligible, the action has to be conceived of by the agent under description d? This thought is very natural given Davidson’s emphasis on beliefs and desires ‘rationalizing’ actions. But it still doesn’t seem right. We can make ‘buying a rare and valuable book’ intelligible by saying that while John didn’t realize it was rare and valuable, he thought the book had a pretty cover. Even more obviously, thinking that an action will eventuate in building a castle can rationalize the ongoing building of a castle (even if the action ‘the ongoing building of a castle’ is not, at the time of the building, conceived of in the progressive aspect.).

  16. See his discussion of Hempel and Fermat’s principle of least time (1986).


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I would like to thank Alan Hájek, Claudia Passos, Clayton Littlejohn, David Chalmers, Daniel Stoljar, Juhani Yli-Vakkuri, John Heron, Jake Wojtowicz, Maria Alvarez, Stewart Cohen, and Timothy Williamson for invaluable discussion and feedback. I would also like to thank the School of Philosophy at the Research School of the Social Sciences, Australian National University for hosting my research on this topic. I am especially grateful to John Hawthorne.

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Correspondence to Christina H. Dietz.

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Dietz, C.H. Are all reasons causes?. Philos Stud 173, 1179–1190 (2016).

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