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What if ideal advice conflicts? A dilemma for idealizing accounts of normative practical reasons


One of the deepest and longest-lasting debates in ethics concerns a version of the Euthyphro question: are choiceworthy things choiceworthy because agents have certain attitudes toward them or are they choiceworthy independent of any agents’ attitudes? Reasons internalists, such as Bernard Williams, Michael Smith, Mark Schroeder, Sharon Street, Kate Manne, Julia Markovits, and David Sobel answer in the first way. They think that all of an agent’s normative reasons for action are grounded in facts about that agent’s pro-attitudes (e.g., her desires, valuing states, normative judgments). According to the most popular brand of internalism, idealizing internalism, an agent’s reasons are grounded, not in her actual pro-attitudes, but rather in what her pro-attitudes would be in suitably idealized conditions. Idealizing internalists presuppose that, for any agent with an irrational set of attitudes, there is one uniquely rational set that that agent would have if she were to undergo the relevant idealizing process. I argue that this assumption is false and that it raises two puzzles for idealizing internalism: one about the existence of practical reasons and another about their normative weight. I argue that idealizing internalists have an adequate solution to the first puzzle but not the second. Indeed, when they try to solve the second puzzle, they confront a dilemma. This second puzzle and the associated dilemma thus constitutes a powerful, but so far unnoticed, difficulty for idealizing internalism.

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  1. 1.

    A pithier, but less precise, way to put it: are the truths about practical normativity invented or discovered?

  2. 2.

    A quick note about terminology. Some (e.g., Schroeder 2007) reserve the label “reasons internalism” for the view that reasons must be, in some sense, motivating. They reserve the label “The Humean Theory of Reasons” for the view that an agent’s reasons are grounded in facts about that agent’s desires. If you’re wondering how these views are any different, see Markovits (2014), where she argues that reasons are grounded in desires but aren’t necessarily motivating (though she calls herself an internalist). The terminology in this literature is a bit of a mess, though everyone seems to understand what everyone means. I actually prefer Sobel’s (2017) term “subjectivism” to capture the range of views I mean to target here. That’s because all my targets say that an agent’s reasons are grounded in facts about the motivational psychology of subjects. But most of my targets self-identify as internalists, and the others, such as Street, don’t deny the label so much as use different ones that they prefer. So I’ve settled on calling them all internalists.

  3. 3.

    By “reasons for action” or “practical reasons”, I will always have in mind normative or justifying reasons for action (as opposed to motivating reasons for action).

  4. 4.

    Defenders of externalism include Parfit (2011), Scanlon (1998), Darwall (1983), Enoch (2011), Shafer-Landau (2003, 2012), and Cuneo (2007).

  5. 5.

    I’ll mostly use “desires” throughout since that’s largely how my interlocutors talk, but I mean to target any view according to which an agent’s reasons are grounded in their pro-attitudes.

  6. 6.

    Schroeder (2007) is probably the most prominent defender of actual internalism.

  7. 7.

    For a nice discussion of defective desires in the context of the well-being literature, see Heathwood (2008).

  8. 8.

    Having inconsistent beliefs is not the same as believing a contradiction. An agent has inconsistent beliefs if she has two beliefs, one of which is that p and the other is that ~ p. An agent believes a contradiction if she has one belief that p and ~ p. Both states of mind are incoherent.

  9. 9.

    We might also speak of the strength of an agent’s reasons. I will use the weight and strength metaphors interchangeably.

  10. 10.

    Street doesn’t appeal to ideal counterparts, but rather to what “follows from” an actual agent’s normative judgments. This difference is not significant for my purposes. What matters is that, even for Street, it’s not the agent’s actual attitudes that ground her reasons, but rather some “cleaned up” version of her attitudes. In this sense, Street is an idealizer. And Street’s view is like the others in that it doesn’t guarantee that, for any irrational agent, there’s a uniquely correct way to clean up her attitudes.

  11. 11.

    Williams, Street, Manne, and Sobel are all Humean internalists. They think that the standards of ideal rationality (in combination with full information) are not so restrictive so as to guarantee that any possible agent will have a reason to comply with the demands of morality. Smith and Markovits, by contrast, are Kantian internalists. They think that the standards of rationality (in combination with full information) are restrictive enough to guarantee that agents always have a reason to comply with the demands of morality. Thus, on their view, any agent who fails to comply with the demands of morality is guilty of some kind of incoherence or structural irrationality. Smith’s idealizing conditions are more restrictive than Markovits’s because Smith thinks that, in addition to being structurally rational, ideal agents must be rid of any depression, addiction, or compulsions, and that they must sufficiently imagine what it would be like to have their desires satisfied, whereas Markovits’s conditions only require perfect structural rationality. Moreover, Smith thinks that ideally rational agents’ desires must exhibit maximal unity. (More on this in the coming paragraphs.) These additional requirements from Smith may lead one to wonder whether he is indeed a Kantian internalist. After all, many think that what’s distinctive about the Kantian project is that it’s an attempt to derive moral obligations from full information and the standards of structural rationality alone. But it seems that Smith might be adding substantive constraints on rationality—constraints that go beyond the mere coherence requirements of structural rationality. There are others who can more ably settle this question of taxonomy. I’ll simply note here that Smith’s project is close enough to the Kantian project that I think it’s worth discussing his view along with other Kantians. And I think that my criticisms of Smith’s view are even more pressing for those philosophers who fit more comfortably in the Kantian camp.

  12. 12.

    It’s worth noting that Smith doesn’t think that conditions (1) and (2) are demands of rationality, only demands of ideal agency. Condition (3) is the one that incorporates demands of rationality. On Smith’s view, one deliberates correctly only if one perfectly complies with the demands of structural rationality (and perhaps more substantive rational requirements, too). As I mentioned in footnote 11, some of Smith’s conditions for ideal rationality (e.g., the absence of depression) seem to move beyond mere structural rationality or coherence. (After all, what’s incoherent about being depressed?) Thus, there is a danger that Smith cannot justify his conditions on perfect rationality without an implicit appeal to reasons. This would mean that his account of reasons is viciously circular, since it analyzes reasons in terms of reasons. I will assume here that Smith is not vulnerable to this charge, but I have my doubts.

  13. 13.

    This is a famous example of Williams’s (1981).

  14. 14.

    This example is similar to Smith’s (1994: 157).

  15. 15.

    It seems to me that the agents I’ve just described recognize as good, and therefore desire, two things that bear an unhappy relation to one another—namely, being difficult to achieve jointly. But it’s not a mark of irrationality (in my view, at least) to recognize as good, and therefore desire, things that are difficult for limited beings like us to achieve jointly.

  16. 16.

    I’ve represented these requirements as narrow-scope requirements. That is, each requirement says of agents satisfying the antecedent that they are rationally required to adopt the particular attitudes in the consequent. Of course, one may also read them as wide-scope requirements, but wide-scope requirements are more permissive than narrow-scope requirements since wide-scope requirements permit agents to satisfy them either by adopting the attitude in the consequent or by dropping one of the antecedent attitudes. But since I’m trying to show that even on the strictest conception of structural rationality, Non-Uniqueness holds, I will proceed as if the requirements of structural rationality are narrow-scope (with the exception of the Transitivity Requirement for reasons explained in the main text).

  17. 17.

    Here “X > Y” reads “X is preferred to Y”.

  18. 18.

    However, Lord (2014), a prominent defender of narrow-scope requirements, accepts that even with narrow-scope requirements agents are rationally permitted to satisfy them in many ways. On Lord’s view, narrow-scopers and wide-scopers agree about all the deontic facts—that is, they agree about which states of mind are rationally (im)permissible. What distinguishes the views, according to Lord, is their explanations of those deontic facts.

  19. 19.

    What about the suggestion that, when an agent has intransitive preferences, she is under three conflicting narrow-scope requirements. That is, her preferences for A > B and B > C require her to prefer A > C, her preferences for B > C and C > A require her to prefer B > A, and her preferences for C > A and A > B require her to prefer C > B? If this is correct, then no matter what this agent does, she will be guilty of some rational failing. If, for example, she satisfies the requirement to prefer A > C, she’ll violate the requirement to prefer B > A. If she satisfies the requirement to prefer B > A, she’ll violate the requirement to prefer C > B. And so on. The question, then, is: what would this suggest about the agent’s ideal counterparts? It seems that there are only two plausible options. Either the actual agent has no ideal counterparts (since there is no way of correcting this agent’s irrational preferences such that she is not guilty of some irrationality), or she has several ideal counterparts (since complying with one of her three obligations is no more rational than complying with one of her other obligations). If she has no ideal counterparts, then, according to idealizing internalism, she has no reasons for action at all. But this is implausible. An agent’s reasons for action don’t disappear as soon as she has intransitive preferences. So it must be that agents with intransitive preferences have several ideal counterparts. If so, that would vindicate the claim being argued for in this section: that there are possible agents with multiple ideal counterparts.

  20. 20.

    Of course, there are more options here, like {philosopher > lawyer > doctor}, {lawyer > doctor > philosopher}, and so on. I’m simplifying the example to keep it manageable, since I will return to it throughout the paper. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Laura’s situation is actually more complicated than I let on in the main text, which makes Non-Uniqueness even more plausible.

  21. 21.

    I am assuming that, once Laura has set her career preference, she is rationally required to adopt the desires to take the corresponding test, seek the corresponding advice, and browse the corresponding sites. Thus, I assume, as I said in footnote 16, that the standards of rationality are narrow-scope, requiring Laura to adopt particular attitudes. Again, I’m comfortable with this assumption because narrow-scope requirements are less permissive. If I interpret the constraints of rationality as wide-scope requirements, then the task of vindicating Non-Uniqueness is easy.

  22. 22.

    I owe this suggestion to Alex Worsnip.

  23. 23.

    This example comes from Schroeder (2007).

  24. 24.

    Schroeder (2007: Ch. 7) coined the name and first made the view explicit, though he rejects it. To my knowledge, he is the only internalist who rejects proportionalism. The view has been defended explicitly by Evers (2014), Manne (2016), Rieder (2016), and Sobel (2017: Ch. 15), and is implicitly endorsed by Smith (1994: 144).

  25. 25.

    One might like a more precise characterization of what a desire’s phenomenological intensity, nagging, or pull amounts to. I don’t have such an account, but that is because no proportionalist has offered one—not even Rieder (2016) in his recent defense of the view. Rieder’s main concern is to defend proportionalism against Schroeder’s (2007) criticisms. However, all of Rieder’s examples about the strength of a desire (e.g., his desire to drink coffee, his desire to keep writing in the face of a deadline) are examples in which the strength of the desire amounts to the phenomenological intensity of the desire. They are examples in which the phenomenological character of the desire is present to the agent’s mind.

  26. 26.

    I take it that Manne intends this only as a rough test for priority, not what priority consists in.

  27. 27.

    I’m more or less convinced by Manne’s (2016) criticism of the phenomenological intensity conception. Manne says that the strength of an agent’s desire—construed as its phenomenological pull—can diminish when the strength of the agent herself diminishes. But this doesn’t entail that the strength of the agent’s reasons diminish. Manne considers a person who is starving or freezing to death. Often, when a person is starving or freezing, her sense of being cold or hungry tends to wane. So the more her bodily need for food or shelter increases, the more her sense of that need—the phenomenological pull she experiences—decreases. And this isn’t the result of any incoherence or irrationality on the agent’s part. So the implausible prediction that, as a person gets closer to freezing to death, they have weaker and weaker reason to find warmth, cannot be corrected by adopting idealizing proportionalism.

  28. 28.

    It’s worth noting that externalism, according to which the weights of reasons are determined by the amount of value to be realized by each course of action can deliver this result. Externalists can say that, since each career is equally valuable, Laura has equally good reason in favor of pursuing each career. Alternatively, they might say that pursuing one of the careers is best, since it realizes the most value, but that, given the options’ similarity in value, it’s really difficult for Laura to know which one is most valuable. In any case, the fact that Laura has intransitive preferences poses no problem at all. According to externalists, reasons, and therefore the weights of reasons, are entirely independent of Laura’s attitudes.

  29. 29.

    What’s so bad about this? Well, there clearly is a fact of the matter about Laura’s reasons. For instance, she has good reasons in favor of pursuing each career. That is very much determinate. She has more reason to pursue these careers than to jump off a bridge. The fact that being a lawyer would help her pay her rent is a stronger reason to be a lawyer than the fact that, as a lawyer, she would occasionally get to speak in a microphone. These are determinate facts about her reasons and the theory better deliver that result.


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For helpful feedback or conversation on previous versions of this paper, I owe many thanks to Alex Worsnip, Chris Howard, Alfredo Watkins, Joseph Porter, Omar Fakhri, Robert Reed, Justin Morton, Uriah Kriegel, Kieran Setiya, Bart Streumer, Sarah Stroud, Aliosha Barranco Lopez, Dominic Berger, Daniel Kokotajlo, Anne Jeffrey, Chris Blake-Turner, Alex Campbell, Joanna Lawson, Keshav Singh, Laura Sampson, and two anonymous reviewers.

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Sampson, E. What if ideal advice conflicts? A dilemma for idealizing accounts of normative practical reasons. Philos Stud (2021).

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  • Reasons
  • Internalism
  • Normativity
  • Rationality
  • Coherence