The theory I shall defend I call Reasons as Good Bases, or RGB for short. It says:
RGB: A normative reason to φ is something that is a good basis for φing.
I hope that this view will seem intuitive. Some examples may help: imagine that I can save your life by throwing you a rope. The fact that it will save your life is a reason to throw you the rope. According to RGB, this amounts to the claim that the fact that it will save your life is a good basis for throwing you the rope. That sounds right. Or, for another example, imagine that there has been a murder, and the murder weapon is registered to the butler. The fact that the murder weapon is registered to the butler is a reason to believe that the butler did it. According to RGB, this amounts to the claim that the fact that the murder weapon is registered to the butler is a good basis for believing that the butler did it. Again, that sounds right. Or for a third example, imagine that it will be a hot dry day today. That is not a reason for me to bring my coat with me on my walk. According to RGB, this amounts to the claim that the fact that it is hot and dry today is not a good basis for taking my coat with me on my walk. Yet again, that sounds right. Or, for a fourth and final example, imagine that wishful thinking is never a reason to believe anything. According to RGB, this amounts to the claim that wishful thinking is never a good basis for belief. Yet again, that sounds right. In these and other cases, RGB has very plausible implications.
RGB analyses reasons in terms of bases, and more specifically in terms of good bases. What do I mean by a basis? I hope the notion is intuitive: you might believe the theory of evolution on a certain basis, or take a particular route to work on a certain basis. But we can say a little more: A basis for φing is what some would call a motivating reason for φing (see, e.g. Smith 1994). Since bases are motivating reasons, we might formulate RGB directly in terms of motivating reasons rather than bases. I might in principle be happy with the rephrased view, but have resisted this formulation for two reasons. First, talk of motivation is most at home in the context of reasons for action, and I want it to be clear that RGB is an account of all reasons, including reasons for attitudes such as reasons for belief. We might use “motivation” in a broader sense to include the grounds on which we believe things, but it is simpler for me to just use the word “basis” and avoid potential confusion. Second, when formulated in terms of motivating reasons, RGB appears to analyse reasons by appeal to reasons. This would not be circular, since the relevant kinds of reason are distinct. But it is nonetheless potentially confusing. So I will stick with talking about bases so far as is possible.
What is the relevant sense of ‘good’ in which bases can be good? ‘Good’ is not here being used in its predicative sense, since things which are normative reasons need not themselves be good things: your pain might be a reason for me to help you despite the fact that your pain is a bad thing, and the presence of clouds might not be a good thing despite the fact that it is a reason to believe that it will shortly rain. So we should instead understand ‘good’ here as being used in its attributive sense. Just as a good knife is not something which is both good and a knife (Geach 1956), but instead something which is good as a knife, a good basis for φing is not something which is both good and a basis for φing, but instead something which is good as a basis for φing. The idea is that bases for doing things can be better or worse as things of their kind, and a normative reason to φ is something that is towards the better end of this spectrum. We might say that according to RGB, normative reasons stand to bases (to motivating reasons) as good knives stand to knives. This fits neatly with the way in which we normally mark the distinction between motivating and normative reasons by distinguishing between ‘reasons’ and ‘good reasons’. We might, for example, ordinarily say that Hitler had his reasons for invading Poland, but that his reasons were (to put it mildly) not very good ones.
I hope that the notion of a good basis is intuitive. It is hardly incomprehensible to claim that, say, wishful thinking is a bad basis for belief. Still, it would be nice to have a little more detail about the nature of bases and how they get to be good. Knives are good to the extent that they are able to cut things. In virtue of what do bases get to be good?
Since RGB aims to explain what it is to be a normative reason, we can’t say that bases are good to the extent that they correspond to normative reasons. For obvious reasons, we also shouldn’t say that bases are good to the extent that they successfully move us. People are often strongly moved by terrible reasons, and vice versa.
One more attractive possibility might be to say that bases for action are good to the extent that they indicate good consequences of the favoured action, and that bases for belief are good to the extent that they indicate the truth of the favoured belief. This view seems simple and attractive, and might well seem attractive to some. However, it will also seem very unattractive to others, since these claims seem to commit us to some kind of ethical consequentialism and some kind of evidentialism about belief. Such commitments are not obviously false but are also nonetheless controversial.
Another attractive possibility might be to say that bases for action are good to the extent that they are bases on which a virtuous person would act, and that bases for belief are good to the extent that they are bases on which a virtuous person would believe. Again, such a view would be attractive to some, but nonetheless controversial in virtue of the wider commitments it would bring.
I could continue to list other possibilities like these, which combine RGB with particular claims about what makes bases good. For example, we might be able to formulate a Kantian version of RGB. But hopefully this short survey makes clear that adopting a theory about what makes bases good may well commit us to controversial substantive claims in ethics and epistemology. Since RGB is supposed to be an abstract account of reasons that is silent on such substantive issues, it is best to treat RGB itself as modular: as something that can be plugged into various different views about the evaluation of bases, in order to generate a variety of substantive commitments. RGB is attractive independently of substantive claims about the evaluation of bases, and it is best to formulate it in a manner that demonstrates that it can be held in combination with a variety of other views. Even when understood in this ecumenical manner, RGB is still attractive and significant.
Note that this does not rob RGB of content. My claim here is not that RGB employs the phrase “good basis” to refer to some as yet unspecified property. Rather, the point is that RGB can be silent about which other properties make a difference to how good something is as a basis for doing something. Here is a comparison: if I claim that what you ought to do is just whatever you have most reason to do, that claim is not robbed of content by my allowing that it is an open question as to which things you have most reason to do. Similarly, when I claim that reasons are good bases, that claim is not robbed of content by my allowing that it is an open question as to which bases are good.
I should note one last possibility that may be at least somewhat informative without being too controversial. We might say that bases are good to the extent that they make the thing they favour a good instance of its kind (cf. Finlay 2014: 85–115; Raz 1999: 23). So bases for action are good to the extent that they make the favoured action a good action, and bases for belief are good to the extent that they make the favoured belief a good belief. This is attractive but nonetheless ecumenical since it leaves open the further question of how actions or beliefs are themselves to be evaluated.
There is a related issue that I shall also set aside. Imagine that Red Rum is going to win the Grand National horse race, but the evidence available to you suggests otherwise and your beliefs reflect this evidence. Do you have any reason to bet on Red Rum? Perspectivists think that you don’t (e.g. Lord 2015). They think of normative reasons in a way that makes them dependent on the agent’s beliefs and/or evidence (henceforth: “perspective”). In contrast, objectivists think that you do have a reason to bet on Red Rum (e.g. Parfit 2011: 31–32). Objectivists think of normative reasons in a way that makes them independent of the agent’s perspective. Still others try to resolve this debate by claiming that “reason” is simply ambiguous between these possibilities (e.g. Schroeder 2008). Sometimes, this ambiguity view is paired with the claim that the relevant distinction is one between the reasons an agent has, and the reasons there are (see Broome 2013: 65–66 for scepticism). The debate between these positions is beyond the scope of this paper, so I will instead assume that we might develop RGB in either manner, depending on how that debate turns out: we might say that a normative reason is a basis that is good given your perspective, or alternatively, that a normative reason is a basis that is good given the facts. The choice between these options plays no significant role in what follows, with the exception of 4.2, where I mention the relevant complications.
The weights of reasons
Regardless of how we resolve the issues above, RGB promises to provide a natural account of the weights of reasons. Reasons have weights that come in degrees: they can be stronger or lighter than one another, and they can also be equal, or incommensurable, in weight. Since goodness also comes in degrees, it is easy to see how RGB accommodates the weights of reasons: According to RGB, the weightiness of a normative reason is just how good it is as a basis. I might have a really good basis for φing but a still better basis for ψing. If that is true, then my reason to ψ is weightier than my reason to φ.
We should be careful with the claims above. Imagine that A is a better basis for φing than B. Does it follow that A is a stronger reason to φ than B? Surprisingly, it doesn’t: perhaps neither A nor B is a reason to φ at all, and A is better than B as a basis for φing only in the minimal sense that it’s less bad. For example, perhaps A is “that it will hurt someone” and B is “that it will kill someone”. In light of this, we should be clear that according to RGB, a reason to φ is something that is a good basis for φing, and that the weight of a reason is given by just how good this basis is. Something which is a bad basis for φing is no reason to φ at all, and the weight of a reason is determined by how good it is, never by how bad it is.
There is another worry regarding the weights of reasons that I should address. Imagine that some reason is genuine but very weak. For example, perhaps there is some very weak reason to drink rainwater rather than tap water, since it is very marginally cheaper. Or for another example, perhaps there is some very weak reason to believe P, because you have the tiniest amount of evidence that P. Under such circumstances, we might be hesitant to say that you have a good basis for drinking rainwater, or for (outright) believing P.
Here are two possible responses to this worry. First, we might think that this is just a pragmatic phenomenon (cf. Schroeder 2007: 92–97). Often, we use “good” in a manner that implies that the thing in question is more than slightly good. If I say that jogging regularly is good for your health when the impact is only very negligible, that would be misleading. But for all that, we might think that the claim would be true. Equally, we might think that it is true, but misleading, to say of the cases above that you have a good basis for drinking rainwater, and a good basis for believing P. Perhaps such claims are true, but misleading because they imply that the relevant basis is not merely slightly good but instead good to some particular degree.
A second way to respond to the worry is to modify RGB.Footnote 2 We might say that:
RGB-modified: A normative reason to φ is something that is a good basis for φing, or else something that is part of a good basis for φing.
On this view, a weak reason to φ might attain its status in virtue of the fact that it, in conjunction with some other facts, would be a good basis for φing. This would have plausible implications for the cases above: that it’s cheaper might not itself be a good basis for drinking rainwater, but the conjunctive fact that it’s cheaper and you really need to save the money might be a good basis for drinking rainwater. Equally, your very weak evidence that P might not be a good basis for believing P, but that same evidence in conjunction with further corroborating evidence might be.
In what follows, I assume that the first response above is the best one: I tend to think on reflection that it is equally acceptable but more parsimonious. But readers might prefer to think of RGB in the above modified manner, and that does little to affect my claims in what follows.
One virtue of RGB—beyond those noted above—is that it unifies the notion of a reason. There are three apparently different senses of the word ‘reason’ illustrated by the differences between the claims ‘the volcano erupted for a reason’, ‘she murdered him for a reason’, and ‘there are good reasons to study philosophy’. The first ‘reason’ seems to simply be an explanation—an explanatory reason, the second ‘reason’ seems to be a motive—a motivating reason, and the third ‘reason’ seems to be a pro tanto justification—a normative reason.
Normative reasons are distinct from motivating and explanatory reasons. There are normative reasons that don’t motivate or explain anything, such as the normative reasons Scrooge has to give more of his money away (well, at least at the start of the story). Vice versa, there are motivating and explanatory reasons that do nothing to justify anything, such as Hitler’s motivating reasons for starting the war, and the explanatory reason why clouds are white.
However, whilst the above claims seem correct, it also seems plausible that these senses of the word ‘reason’ are somehow related. It doesn’t seem like an accident that we use the same word in all three cases: this isn’t like the ambiguity present in the word ‘bank’. It is very easy to see that explanatory and motivating reasons are related: a motivating reason is just one particular kind of explanatory reason. But this leaves a task for a theory of normative reasons, which is to explain how they are connected with explanatory and motivating reasons (cf. Broome 2004: 34; 2013: 50).
RGB succeeds in this task. According to RGB, a normative reason is something that is a good motivating reason. Again, the idea is that the relationship between motivating reasons and normative reasons is the same as that between knives and good knives. That ties the two notions closely together in a manner that makes sense of why we use the same word for both.
So though RGB respects the distinction between normative reasons and other reasons—P might be a good basis for your φing though you never φ on the basis of P, and you might φ on the basis that P even though P is not a good basis for φing—it also unifies normative reasons and other reasons in an attractive manner.Footnote 3