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Does the normative question about rationality rest on a mistake?


Rationality requires that our mental attitudes exhibit specific patterns of coherence. Do we have reason to comply? ’Prichardian Quietists’ regard this question as fundamentally confused: the only reasons to comply with rational requirements are the ones given by the requirements themselves. In this paper, I argue that PQ fails. I proceed by granting that Prichard’s own position, from which PQ draws inspiration, is defensible, while identifying three serious problems with the parallel position about rationality. First, as I argue, PQ is not plausibly combined with either the narrow-scope or the wide-scope formulations of rational requirements. Second, PQ implies that the reasons to comply with rational requirements are reasons of the wrong kind. And finally, PQ lacks a crucial component of its explanation, viz. a plausible theory of what constitutes being rationally required to V.

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  1. The text provides some examples of requirements of practical coherence; there are plausibly also epistemic requirements of coherence, e.g. that we not believe that p and believe that not-p. The focus in what follows will be on practical coherence. There is a rich debate over the precise formulation of some of these requirements, most notably perhaps the requirement of instrumental coherence [see e.g. Broome (2013), Kant (1948), Ross (2009) and Setiya (2007)]. But rough formulations will suffice for present purposes. It should be noted also that no suggestion is made here that requirements of rational coherence comprise the whole of what rationality requires.

  2. Having just a reason to comply is taken by many in the debate to be too weak, since such a reason may be outweighed. My thanks to two anonymous referees for stressing the need to clarify this.

  3. The term ‘the normative question’ originates in Korsgaard (1996), who uses it as a label for the question of what reason we might have to comply with the requirements of morality. Broome (2013) co-opts the label for the parallel question about rationality, and the text follows his usage.

  4. See for example, Bratman (1987): pp. 23–30; Broome (1999): pp. 409–10; and Broome (2004): pp. 29–30.

  5. See Broome (2005), and Kolodny (2005), among many others.

  6. On the wide scope view of the instrumental requirement, one could comply even if one does not intend to have one’s rival assassinated; one could instead avoid intending to become the most successful chairperson, or avoid believing that the assassination is a necessary means. And complying with the requirement in at least the former way does arguably achieve something one has reason to achieve, viz. dropping an end one should not intend to pursue. However, there are cases where none of the ways of complying available on a wide scope view will be such that one has reason to perform them. Thus suppose one intends to go on vacation, and believes that one will go only if one intends to call the travel agent. While the wide scope view offers three ways for complying with the instrumental requirement, none of these ways need be such that one has reason to execute them. For one may have some reason to intend to go on vacation, and some reason to call the agent, e.g. because the vacation will be enjoyable. But equally, one could have reason of the same weight not to intend to go, and not to intend to call the agent, e.g. because one’s work is piling up. (Assume also that one has no reason to avoid believing that calling the agent is necessary for going on vacation).

  7. Way (2012a) formulates and defends a novel alternative to both wide-scope and narrow-scope versions of the instrumental requirement. On Way’s ‘intermediate-scope’ version, if you believe that M-ing is necessary for E-ing, then you are rationally required not to [intend to E and not intend to M]. Way shows that this version of the requirement has an easier time answering the normative question. However, since Way’s formulation is not the one typically at issue between Prichardians and their opponents, it will be set aside here. My thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  8. A more precise formulation of the Prichardian’s claim would read: ‘The only reasons one necessarily has to comply, in virtue of being rationally required to comply, are ...’. Since this formulation is rather cumbersome, however, in what follows I shall take the italicized clause as read. I thank an anonymous referee for urging me to clarify this.

  9. Cf. Prichard (2002, p. 4): ‘It is not that the principle has no reason but that it includes its reason, the reason becoming explicit when the principle is properly expressed, e.g. my promise to pay someone something, as such ... involves that I ought to pay him’.

  10. Various replies that have been given to Prichard’s original argument will not be discussed here. These include, for example, denying that the goodness of V-ing is a non-moral reason to V; and claiming that complying with moral requirements is constitutive of being a virtuous agent. These and other replies will not be discussed since, as will become apparent, the argument of this paper proceeds by granting for the sake of argument that Prichard’s position about moral normativity is defensible, while showing that, even if it is defensible, the analogy with rational normativity breaks down.

  11. Dancy (2009) speculates that the kind of normativity rationality has is evaluative: complying with rational requirements is a virtue in agents, even when they do not have a reason to do so. However, as Dancy himself readily admits, this does not yet account for the normativity of rationality. For if rational behavior merits positive evaluation, there must be some explanation of why this is so. What is good about being rational? Having given up on finding a reason to positively evaluate rational agents, Dancy calls on Prichard to support the speculation that rationality may provide its own reasons.

  12. Prima facie plausible though, as we shall see, ultimately untenable.

  13. Schroeder (2009) is a notable exception to the widespread rejection of the narrow-scope view as part of explaining the normativity of rational requirements. Schroeder claims that rational requirements are normative in the sense that they provide subjective reasons to comply, where A has a subjective reason to V just when A would have an objective reason to V if her beliefs were true. Schroeder’s view will not be discussed here. This is partly because, when the sceptics the Prichardian is responding to deny that there are reasons to be rational, it is not typically subjective reasons they have in mind.

  14. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for getting me to address Brunero’s proposal.

  15. I am indebted to Jonathan Way for discussion here

  16. Might Southwood’s or Hussain’s way of developing the Prichardian strategy help with the problem described in this section (as an anonymous referee helpfully inquired)? It might be thought, for example, that being constitutive of one’s first-personal standpoint, as Southwood suggests, illuminates the otherwise obscure reason-giving status of rational requirements, which was the problem raised for the wide-scoping Prichardian. However, being constitutive of one’s standpoint could not be part of one’s reason to comply, on pain of running afoul of the Prichardian’s quietist aspirations. And similarly for Hussain’s suggestion that rational requirements tell one how to reason. The original obscurity, therefore, remains. Turning briefly to the narrow scope version of the Prichardian strategy, neither Hussain’s nor Southwood’s proposals seem to relieve bootstrapping-induced anxieties. It still seems highly objectionable to suppose that one could bootstrap reasons to intend silly or wrong acts merely by having certain attitudes—even if those attitudes partly constitute one’s first-personal standpoint or conform to rules of correct reasoning. Southwood’s and Hussain’s proposals are more closely scrutinized in Sect. 3.3 below.

  17. WKRs were identified in the course of debates over the fitting attitude account of value, as they seem to present counterexamples to that account. See e.g. D’Arms and Jacobson (2000): p. 747, and Schroeder (2010): pp. 26–27.

  18. Kolodny argues on the basis of something like the motivational earmark that any reason to be rational would have to be a WKR (or, as he puts it, a ‘state-given’ reason (Kolodny 2005: pp. 547–551). More on Kolodny’s argument below.

  19. For further evidence of the difficulty to be motivated by reasons internal to rationality, notice how peculiar the following pieces of reasoning seem:

    • (Narrow) ‘I intend to E and believe I won’t E unless I intend to \(M'\); ‘Rationality requires that I intend to \(M'\); ‘So, I’ll \(M'\).

    • (Wide) ‘Rationality requires that I intend to M if I intend to E and believe I won’t E unless I intend to \(M'\); ‘I intend to E,  believe I won’t E unless I intend to M, but don’t intend to \(M'\); ‘So, I’ll \(M'\).

    And contrast the perfectly natural:

    • (Moral) ‘I incurred a debt’; ‘morality requires that I repay a debt if I incur it’; ‘So, I’ll repay the debt’.

    Broome (2013: ch. 12) raises, in a different context, several problems for the idea that reasoning could proceed via a higher-order belief about the attitudes required by rationality, as in Narrow and Wide. The structure of the reasoning Broome imagines is different from the one described here; for example, he would probably replace the conclusion with something like ‘So, I’ll intend to \(M'\). Broome shows that reasoning that followed such higher-order patterns would encounter difficulties over e.g. having to implausibly postulate an intention to intend to M, which would then cause one to intend to M.

  20. Readers not convinced that the facilitation-relation cited in the text works for the wide-scope requirement should substitute ‘believing that one ought to [either book, or not intend to go to CA, or not believe that intending to book is necessary for going to CA]’ for ‘believing that one ought to book’. It is somewhat less clear what could replace the facilitation relation in demonstrating that Prichardian wide-scope reasons do not conform to Right Reason Intention. This is because the latter is a transmission pattern for reasons to intend, not reasons to [intend to M or not intend to E or not believe intending to M is necessary for E-ing]. This may involve a modified transmission pattern. But if Right Reason Intention extends to cover such combinations of attitudes, and assuming that calling facilitates [either booking, or not going to CA, or not believing that booking is necessary] by facilitating booking, then the substitution would be straightforward.

  21. See Gibbard (1990), Kelly (2002), Kolodny (2005), Owens (2000), Parfit (2001) and (2011), chap. 2 & Appendix A; Persson (2007), Pink (1996), Shah (2006, 2008), Skorupski (2010), and Way (2012b). As noted in passing above, Kolodny argues that ‘there are no reasons in general to comply with rational requirements’, since any reason to comply with rational requirements would have to be a WKR (2005: p. 551). Kolodny takes something like the motivational earmark to show that the fact that rationality requires compliance is a WKR. And since WKRs are not reasons, there can be no reasons to comply. Kolodny’s argument does not establish that any reason to comply with rational requirements would be a WKR, since not any such possible reason would be given by the fact that rationality requires compliance. (To be fair, Kolodny has different objections to alternative suggestions for what the reason might be). And he is anyway only committed to the claim that WKRs for belief are not in fact reasons, so that only when compliance involves belief, there are no reasons to comply.

  22. Prichard’s position is often glossed as complaining that replies to the normative question about morality are bound to identify reasons of the wrong kind. There is therefore some irony in the result that Prichardians about rationality are guilty of a similar mistake to the one Prichard himself was anxious to forestall—even though, of course, it is doubtful that he had in mind the same sense of ‘wrong kind’ as in the text.

  23. More precisely, Southwood claims that it is constitutive of having a standpoint that one be ‘subject to, and minimally committed to,’ rational requirements (2008: p. 27; emphasis added). This raises another potential problem with Southwood’s position. For the idea of being minimally committed may seem at best to ground a disposition to comply. But, as noted above, and as Southwood himself concedes, the normativity of rationality is presumed to be stronger than that. Rationality is intuitively presumed to be normative in the sense of providing reason, not merely to be disposed to comply, but to always comply.

  24. See Broome (2013, section 10.4) for the idea of basing prohibitions. Broome also discusses basing permissions.


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For their very helpful comments on, and discussions of, earlier drafts of this paper, I am extremely grateful to Hagit Benbaji, Dalia Drai, Alex Gregory, David Horst, Naomi Korem, Jonathan Way, Ruth Weintraub, audiences at Cardiff University and the meeting of the European Normativity Network at Humboldt University, and two anonymous referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Yair Levy.

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Levy, Y. Does the normative question about rationality rest on a mistake?. Synthese 195, 2021–2038 (2018).

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  • Rational requirements
  • Normativity of rationality
  • Scope
  • H. A. Prichard
  • Reasons of the wrong kind