Philosophy of Practical Reasoning Research Paper

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Practical reasoning is reasoning that aims to resolve the question of what one is to do. Such reasoning is practical in at least two senses. First, it is practical in its subject matter, insofar as it is concerned with human action. But it is also practical in its issue, insofar as reflection about action can itself directly move people to act. Reasoning of this kind raises two sets of philosophical problems. One concerns the question of how reflection can succeed in being practical in its issue. What assumptions must be made both about agents and about the processes of reasoning they engage in to make sense of the fact that such reflection can give rise to action? Can justice be done to this fact while preserving the idea that practical reasoning is genuinely a form of reasoning? A second set of issues concerns the content of the standards that are brought to bear in practical reasoning. Which norms for the assessment of action are binding on us as agents? Do these norms provide resources for critical reflection about our ends, or are they exclusively instrumental? Under what conditions do moral norms yield valid standards for reasoning about action? The first set of issues is addressed in Sects. 1–3, while Sects. 4 and 5 cover the second set of issues.

1. Practical And Theoretical Reasoning

Practical reasoning takes place from a distinctive standpoint. When agents deliberate about action, they think about themselves and their situation in characteristic ways. What are some of the salient features of the practical point of view?

One way to interpret this point of view is to contrast it with the standpoint of theoretical reflection. Theoretical reflection is sometimes understood as reasoning about questions of explanation and prediction. Looking backward to events that have already taken place, it asks why they have occurred; looking forward, it attempts to determine what is going to happen in the future. In these ways, theoretical reflection is concerned with matters of fact and their explanation. Furthermore it treats these issues in impersonal terms that are accessible (in principle) to anyone. The natural and social sciences can be viewed as giving paradigmatic expression to theoretical reasoning, so construed.

Practical reasoning, by contrast, takes a distinctively normative question as its starting point. It typically asks, of a set of alternatives for action, none of which has yet been performed, what one ought to do, or what it would be best to do. It is thus concerned not with matters of fact and their explanation, but with matters of value, of what is to be done. In practical reasoning agents attempt to assess and weigh their reasons for action, the considerations that speak for and against alternative courses of action that are open to them. Moreover, they do this from a distinctively first-personal point of view, one that is defined in terms of a practical predicament in which they find ourselves (individually or collectively—people sometimes reason jointly about what they should do together; see Joint Action).

There is, however, a different way of understanding theoretical reasoning, stressing the parallels rather than the differences between the two forms of reflection. According to this interpretation, theoretical reflection is concerned with a normative rather than a factual question, namely with the question of what one ought to believe. It attempts to answer this normative question by assessing and weighing reasons for belief, the considerations that speak for and against the particular conclusions one might draw about the way the world is. Furthermore, it does this from a standpoint of first-personal reflection: the stance of theoretical reasoning in this sense is the committed stance of the believer, not the stance of detached contemplation of one’s beliefs themselves (Moran 1997). Seen in this way, the contrast between practical and theoretical reflection is essentially a contrast between two different systems of norms: those for the regulation of action on the one hand, and those for the regulation of belief on the other.

Theoretical reflection, interpreted along these lines, addresses the considerations that recommend accepting particular claims as to what is or is not the case. That is, it is reasoning with an eye to the truth of propositions, and the reasons for belief in which it deals are considerations that speak in favor of such propositions’ being true, or worthy of acceptance. Practical reasoning, by contrast, is concerned not with the truth of propositions but with the value of actions. The reasons in which it deals are considerations that speak in favor of particular actions being good, or worthy of performance in some way. This difference in subject matter corresponds to a further difference between the two kinds of reasoning, in respect of their consequences. Theoretical reflection about what one ought to believe produces changes in one’s overall set of beliefs, whereas practical reason gives rise to action; it is, as noted above, practical not only in its subject matter, but also in its issue.

Two observations are in order about this side of practical reasoning. First, the contrast just drawn might suggest that there is a categorial difference in the effects of theoretical and practical reasoning, insofar as the former produces changes in our mental states, whereas the latter gives rise to bodily movements. But this would be misleading. Practical reasoning gives rise not to bodily movements per se, but to intentional actions, which are intelligible as such only to the extent they reflect our mental states. It would thus be more accurate to characterize the consequences of both theoretical and practical reasoning as attitudes, noting that the former leads to modifications of our beliefs, whereas the latter leads to modifications of our intentions (Harman 1986, Bratman 1987). Second, in neither case do the modifications in question occur infallibly. There is room for irrationality both in the theoretical and the practical sphere, which in its strongest form involves a failure to acquire the attitudes that one acknowledges to be called for by the reasons one has reflected on. Thus a person might end up watching another hour of television, while judging that it would be better on the whole to go back to work. Practical irrationality of this latter kind is known as akrasia, incontinence, or weakness of will, and its possibility makes clear that practical reasoning is not automatically practical in its issue. A better way to represent the consequences of practical reasoning would be to say that it generates appropriate intentions to the extent an agent is rational (Korsgaard 1996; see Irrationality: Philosophical Aspects).

2. Naturalism And Normativity

The connection of practical reasoning with intentional action raises large questions about its credentials as a genuine form of reasoning. As noted above, intentional action is not mere bodily movement, but reflects a mental state of the agent’s, viz. intention. To be in this kind of mental state is to have a goal or aim of some kind, which one seeks to realize through one’s action. Intention seems in this respect to be strikingly unlike belief. The propositions that give the content of beliefs have a representative function; they aim to fit the way the world is, so that if one discovers that the world is not how one previously took it to be, one’s belief will automatically be modified in the process. With intentions, however, matters are otherwise (Smith 1987). The intention to go shopping on Tuesday, for instance, is not a state that would or should be abandoned upon discovering that one has not (yet) gone shopping on Tuesday; rather the person with such an intention will ordinarily try to bring the world into alignment with the intention, by going shopping when Tuesday comes around. Intentions are in this way more like blueprints than like sketches of an already completed structure.

Reflection on this contrast between belief and intention has led some philosophers to ask whether practical reasoning might not be something of a misnomer. The concern, in a nutshell, is how processes of thought that count as genuine reasoning could by themselves generate states with the peculiar, nonrepresentative function of intentions. Reasoning seems to consist of cognitive operations, whereas intentions are distinctively noncognitive states insofar as they do not aim to reflect the way things happen to be in the world.

Expressivist accounts give voice to this skeptical attitude about practical reasoning. These accounts offer interpretations of the normative language that distinctively figures in practical reflection about action. As was seen in Sect. 1, such reflection is an attempt to assess an agent’s reasons for acting in one way or another; conclusions about such reasons are characteristically expressed in claims about what it would be good to do, or about the actions that one ought to perform. According to the expressivist, however, such claims do not represent genuine cognitive achievements, judgments that are literally capable of being true or false. Rather they give expression to desires, sentiments, and pro-attitudes, the kinds of noncognitive state that motivate people to action. Only if normative assertions are understood in this way—so the expressivist contends—can sense be made of the capacity of practical reflection to generate states with the peculiar structure and function of intentions.

Expressivism in this form can be seen as a naturalistic interpretation of practical reasoning, one that is appropriate to the enlightened commitments of the modern scientific world view. It is naturalistic metaphysically, insofar as no assumptions need be made about the objective existence in the world of such questionable entities as values, norms, or reasons for action. If normative claims do not represent genuine cognitive achievements, then their legitimacy does not depend on our postulating a realm of normative facts to which those claims might correspond. It is also naturalistic psychologically, insofar as it promises explanations of intentional human behavior that are basically continuous with explanations of the behavior of nonhuman animals. In both the human and the nonhuman case, behavior is seen as the causal product of noncognitive attitudes, operating in conjunction with the creature’s factual representation of how things are in its environment. The difference is just that humans have much more sophisticated linguistic methods for giving voice to their motivating noncognitive attitudes. Indeed, many contemporary expressivists would contend that these expressive resources are sufficiently powerful to explain the features of practical reflection that initially give it the appearance of a genuine form of reasoning (Blackburn 1998, Gibbard 1990).

Other philosophers remain unimpressed with these naturalistic explanations. One ground for dissatisfaction with them is the following. The expressivist strategy relies on an initial contrast between practical reflection and the genuine forms of cognitive activity characteristic of theoretical reasoning. There has to be some basic sense in which such discourse does not come up to the standards of authentic cognitive discourse in the literal sense, otherwise the contention that normative discourse is expressive rather than cognitive will lack any significant content. But the contrast between theoretical and practical reflection required for this purpose seems elusive. As was seen in Sect. 1, theoretical reasoning is no less a normative enterprise than practical reasoning. It concerns itself with reasons for belief: the evidence and other considerations that speak for and against particular conclusions about the way things are in the world. In this respect, theoretical and practical reasoning would seem equally problematic from the naturalistic perspective—assuming, that is, that it leaves no place for such normative considerations as reasons. But if naturalism calls in question the credentials of theoretical reason, it thereby undermines the contrast between genuine reasoning and noncognitive normative discourse on which expressivists themselves rely.

3. Reasons And Motivation

The capacity of practical reasoning to generate intentional action divides even those philosophers who agree in rejecting the expressivist strategy discussed above. Such philosophers are prepared to grant that there are reasons for action, and to accept the cognitive credentials of normative claims about such reasons. But they differ in their accounts of the truth conditions of these normative claims. Two approaches may be distinguished. The first of these, frequently referred to as internalism, holds that reasons for action must be grounded in an agent’s prior motivations (Williams 1981). According to this position, a given agent s can have reason to do x only if x-ing would speak to or further some element in s’s ‘subjective motivational set.’ There must be some rational route that connects s’s x-ing with the subjective motivations to which s is actually already subject; otherwise the claim that s has reason to x must be rejected as false or incoherent. Behind this internalist position lies the idea that practical reasoning is practical in its issue. Internalists contend that sense can be made of the capacity of such reasoning to generate new intentions only if it is conditioned by motivational resources that are already to hand. Reasoning about action is a matter of working out the implications of the commitments contained in one’s subjective motivational set; in this sense, motivation is prior to practical reason, and constrains it. Externalists reject this assumption, contending that one can have reasons for action that are independent of one’s prior motivations. Most of them agree that practical reasoning must be capable of generating new intentional actions, and hence of giving rise to motivation. They agree, in other words, that if agent s has reason to do x, it must be possible for s to acquire the motivation to x through reflection on the relevant reasons. But they deny that such reasoning must in any way be constrained by s’s subjective motivations prior to the episode of reasoning. Practical reasoning is not exclusively a process of working out the implications of one’s existing commitments; it is also an attempt to get clear about what it would objectively be good to do. Normative considerations of this kind are independent of one’s prior motivations, and can open up new motivational possibilities (Parfit 1997).

Underlying this dispute are diverging approaches to the explanation of intentional action. Internalists are impressed by the differences between intentions and the cognitive states that figure in paradigmatic examples of theoretical reasoning. Pointing to these differences, they ask how practical reasoning can succeed in producing new intentions if it is not grounded in something of the same basic psychological type: a motivation or desire that is already part of the agent’s subjective motivational equipment. Many externalists find this contrast between intentions and cognitive states overdrawn. They observe that we need to postulate basic dispositions of responsiveness to reasons to account for the capacity of theoretical reflection to generate new beliefs, and question why these same dispositions cannot explain the fact that practical reasoning is practical in its issue. Cognitive or not, intentions belong to the broad class of attitudes that are sensitive to judgments, and this may account for the capacity of practical reflection to give rise to new intentions (Scanlon 1998). A third possibility is that intentions are products of the will, a capacity for self-determination distinct from the dispositions that render theoretical rationality possible. Depending on how it is developed, the theory of the will may offer a different way of accounting for the practical consequences of practical reflection, without assuming that reasons for action are grounded in an agent’s subjective motivations (Wallace 1999).

4. Instrumental And Maximizing Rationality

Among the substantive norms of practical reasoning, those of instrumental rationality appear least controversial. Instrumental rationality, in its most basic form, instructs agents to take those means that are necessary to achieve their ends. In the modern era, this form of rationality has widely been viewed as the single unproblematic norm of practical reasoning. The instrumental principle makes no assumptions about the prospects for rationally scrutinizing peoples’ ends. Rational criticism of this kind would seem to presuppose that there are objective values, standards for assessment of ends that are independent from psychological facts about what people happen to be motivated to pursue. In keeping with the naturalistic attitude sketched in Sect. 2, however, it may be doubted whether such standards can be reconciled with the metaphysical commitments of contemporary scientific practice. A world that is shorn of objective values or norms leaves no room for rational criticism of people’s ends, but only for Weberian Zweckrationalitat: the rational determination of means to the realization of ends that are taken as given, as a matter of psychological fact.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that instrumental rationality is itself the expression of an objective normative commitment. The instrumental principle tells us that we have reason to take the means that are necessary to achieve our ends; if the principle is valid, then people are open to rational criticism to the extent they fail to exhibit this kind of instrumental consistency, regardless of whether they want to comply with the principle or not. If naturalism really leaves no place for objective norms or values, it may be wondered how an exception can possibly be made for the instrumental norm. The consistent naturalist should perhaps reject even Zweckrationalitat in favor of a skeptical attitude towards practical reasoning in all its forms (Hampton 1998). Further questions can be raised about the plausibility of the instrumental norm as a self-standing principle of practical reason. The norm says that one should take the means that are necessary to achieve one’s ends. But how can the fact that a given means is necessary, relative to some end, give a person reason to choose the means, if the end is not itself something it would be good to achieve in some way? The instrumental principle seems to function as a binding standard for practical reasoning only if it is taken for granted that there are additional, independent standards for the assessment of our ends (Korsgaard 1997).

One way to make room for the rational criticism of individual ends, without departing from the spirit of Zweckrationalitat, is to expand one’s view to encompass the totality of an agent’s ends. Thus, even if there are no values that are ultimately independent of an agent’s given ends, it would appear possible to criticize particular intrinsic desires by reference to others in the agent’s subjective motivational set. An agent’s desire for leisure, for instance, might be subordinated insofar as its satisfaction would frustrate the realization of other goals that are subjectively more important to the agent. Practical reasoning, it might be suggested, is a holistic enterprise, concerned not merely with the specification of means to the realization of individual ends, but with coordinated achievement of the totality of an agent’s ends.

Many philosophers view this holistic perspective as the most fruitful way of conceptualizing the tasks of practical reasoning. It defines an important and difficult problem for practical reasoning to solve, without departing from the metaphysically modest assumption that there is no court of appeal for the rational criticism of an agent’s ends that is independent of those ends themselves. The most sophisticated and influential expression of this holistic perspective is the maximizing conception of rationality. According to the maximizing conception, the fundamental aim of practical reasoning is to determine which course of action would optimally advance the agent’s complete set of ends. Thus it has been suggested that the rational action is the one whose subjective expected utility— reflecting both the utility of possible outcomes, from the agent’s point of view, and the agent’s beliefs about the probability of those outcomes—is the highest.

The maximizing conception of rationality finds its most complete expression in decision theory and in the theory of rational choice (as developed, for instance, in economics). These disciplines articulate with mathematical precision the assumption that one is acting rationally to the extent one does what is likely to bring about the best state of affairs, given both one’s preferences and one’s beliefs about the probable consequences of the alternatives that are open to one. Proponents of these theories often claim for them the additional advantage of empirical adequacy, contending that they are flexible enough to accommodate the full range of behaviors that human agents engage in, both within the marketplace and outside of it. Especially if one operates with the notion of ‘revealed preferences’—preferences, that is, that are inferred solely on the basis of actual behavior—then virtually anything an agent might choose do to could be interpreted as an attempt to maximize expected utility. Decision theory, on this account of it, becomes an allencompassing framework for the interpretation of human behavior, according to which agents are always striving to produce outcomes that would be optimal, relative to their preferences and beliefs.

If decision theory is interpreted in this way, however, then its relevance to the understanding of practical reasoning begins to seem correspondingly tenuous. Maximizing rationality initially looks to be a norm of practical reflection. In this guise, its appeal lies in the idea that there can be rational requirements on action, stemming from the totality of an agent’s preferences and beliefs, even if it is not assumed that there are independent, substantive standards for the critical assessment of individual ends. But this normative understanding of maximizing rationality is tenable only if it is at least conceivable that individual agents might occasionally fail to comply with its requirements—an ‘ought’ that it is not so much as possible to flout is not really an ‘ought’ at all. Proponents of the maximizing approach need to be attentive to the latent tension between the empirical and the normative aspirations of their theory, for maximizing rationality cannot claim both perfect empirical adequacy and normative authority for practical deliberation.

Assuming this tension can be resolved, further questions arise about the plausibility of the normative requirement to maximize expected utility. Doubts have been raised, for instance, with regard to the assumption that it is necessarily irrational to fail to select that action that would be optimal, relative to one’s preferences and beliefs. Perfectly rational agents often seem to be content with states of affairs that are ‘good enough,’ from the perspective of their aims and desires, even when they are aware of alternatives that promise a higher return; they ‘satisfice’ rather than seeking to maximize the value of the outcomes that they bring about (Slote 1989). They also treat their past intentions and plans as fixed constraints on their decision-making, rather than attempting to maximize subjective utility anew in every situation they confront (Bratman 1987). Some contend that maximizing rationality is flexible enough that it can accommodate alleged counterexamples of these kinds (Pettit 1984). If not, however, there may be grounds for doubting that it represents a fundamental and uncontroversial norm for reasoning about action.

5. Specification, Expressive Rationality, And Moral Reasons

If maximizing rationality is not the unproblematic requirement of practical reasoning that it initially seemed to be, what are the alternatives to it? Consider the assumption that critical assessment of an agent’s individual ends is off-limits. This apparently truistic assumption has been questioned by some philosophers, who point out that a great many of one’s aims in life are rather inchoate; people want, for instance, to be successful in their careers, and loyal to their friends, without being entirely clear about what these ends require of them. To the extent one’s ends are indefinite in this way, they will not provide satisfactory starting points for instrumental, maximizing, or even satisficing reflection. One will need to specify such ends more precisely before one can begin to think about which means they require one to pursue, or to generate from them a rank-ordering of possible outcomes. Here is a possible task for practical reasoning that does not fit neatly into the categories of Zweckrationalitat, however broadly construed (Wiggins 1987, Richardson 1994).

Practical reflection about ends is not an easy or welldefined activity. There are no straightforward criteria for success in this kind of reflection, and it is not even clear when it has been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. These considerations are no doubt partially responsible for the assumption—especially widespread in the social sciences—that there is no reasoning about final ends. On the other hand, how is one supposed to clarify one’s largest and most important ends, if not by reasoning about them in some way? Rather than exclude such reflection because it does not conform to a prior and possibly inappropriate paradigm of proper reasoning, perhaps the conception of practical reasoning should be expanded to make room for clarificatory reflection about the ends of action. To do so would be to acknowledge that practical reasoning can be both objective and subjective at the same time; by working out the meaning and implications of such commitments as loyalty or success, for instance, agents also help to get clear the values that define who they are (Taylor 1985; see Hermeneutics, Including Critical Theory).

A different point at which to question received models of practical reasoning is the theory of value to which they are committed. Maximizing and satisficing models alike seem committed to a consequentialist account of the relation of action to value: the thesis that value inheres ultimately in states of affairs, and that actions are to be judged rational to the extent they produce valuable states of affairs. This thesis seems at odds, however, with intuitive ways of thinking about value. It appears a distorted understanding of friendship, for instance, to say that what friends value fundamentally are states of affairs (involving, say, joint activities with the friend); what people value as friends are rather the concrete persons with whom they are befriended. This suggests a different way of conceptualizing the rationality of action. What makes actions rational, it has been claimed, is not the production of valuable states of affairs, but rather their success in expressing the attitudes that it is rational to adopt toward the true bearers of intrinsic value: people, animals, and things (Anderson 1993). A supposed advantage of this approach is its ability to explain the rationality of behaviors that seem intuitively sensible, but that are hard to fit into the consequentialist scheme (such as commitments deriving from one’s past involvement in an activity or project, which can look like an irrational weighing of ‘sunk costs’ to the consequentialist; compare Nozick 1993).

Morality provides an especially fertile source of examples and problems for the theory of practical reasoning. One of the defining questions of moral philosophy is the question of the rational authority of moral norms: to what extent, and under what conditions, are people rationally required to comply with the demands of conventional morality? Reflection on this question has produced some of the most far- reaching and illuminating philosophical work on the nature of practical reasoning. Two divergent tend encies within this body of work should be singled out. Some approaches to moral reasoning proceed by relating it to patterns of reflection familiar from other, nonmoral domains, particularly the maximizing pat- terns canvassed in the preceding section. Thus it has been argued that, though morality imposes constraints on the direct pursuit of individual utility, these constraints can be justified in terms of the values expressed by ordinary economic rationality; a strategy of constrained maximization is recommended on grounds of enlightened self-interest, and this in turn accounts for the authority of moral norms to govern the practical reflection of individuals (Gauthier 1986). Other philosophers have sought to make sense of morality as a source of rational norms by assimilating it more directly to the maximizing conception. For instance, proponents of consequentialism as an ethical theory—the theory that agents are morally required to maximize the good, impartially conceived—consider it an advantage of this account that it represents moral requirements in terms of the maximizing conception of rationality familiar from other contexts (Harsanyi 1982; see Consequentialism Including Utilitarianism; Economics and Ethics).

A different approach stresses the discontinuities between moral and nonmoral patterns of reasoning. According to this approach, morality is a source of constraints (such as prohibitions on murder and deception) that cannot be represented accurately within the framework of maximizing rationality (for example, Scanlon 1998). If this is correct, then those who wish to make sense of moral requirements, as norms that appropriately govern the reflection of individual agents, will need to expand their conception of the forms and possibilities of practical reasoning.


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