Thursday, February 10, 2011

Deciding What to Do and Deciding What One Has Reason to Do

R. Jay Wallace: "The task of practical deliberation, after all, is the task of determining what one has reason to do." A page later, however, he refers to "the deliberative standpoint we adopt when deciding what to do."

Now, would you say that these are equivalent?

The second claim, that in deliberation we are deciding what to do, seems true by definition: that's just what deliberation is. But the first claim, that deliberation involves determining what we have reason to do, strikes me as obviously false. For one thing, I don't think we ever deliberate about things we do not already take to be reasons; if I don't think I have a reason to fail a student, then I will not deliberate about whether to fail the student. (Though there is another possibility, which may be somewhat Davidsonian: if I have a desire to fail my student, I thereby have a reason to do so. This view isn't so popular any more, and I think correctly; the mere fact that I desire to do something does not give me a reason. Davidson may have held it to be a reason, but not a strong one; but Frankfurt, Bratman, Korsgaard, and others place stricter requirements on reasons, such that to be a reason a desire must be endorsed, involve or at least not contradict a volitional necessity, etc.)

But more to the point: (A) "Should I do X or Y?" is just not the same question as (B) "Do I have reason to do X or Y?" Nor is it the same as what I take to be a more reasonable interpretation of B: (C) "Do I have more reason to do X or Y?" Aside from the objection mentioned above, it seems clear that deliberation is not merely about what I have reason to do; in any case, if the aim of deliberation is to decide what to do, then certainly deliberation must involve choosing among reasons. Thus, I will drop B and stick to the question of whether A or C may differ. (Of course on some interpretation of "reason", B and C mean the same thing: if I decide that, all things considered, it would be better to spend my last three dollars on ice cream than on a subway ticket, then I have a reason to spend it on ice cream. But talking in this way makes it a bit difficult to explain what it is that might rationally incline me in favor of the other course of action if not a reason, or a consideration in favor of it.)

It seems to me that they may differ. I can answer A without considering C at all; on reflection, I might recognize that I decided to do X—through deliberation—without taking myself to have a reason to do X rather than Y. A lot of people—as diverse as Davidson and Korsgaard—dispute this claim. They think that if I decide, through deliberation, to do X, I must normally have more reason to do X (if I decide that I have more reason to do Y but then do X, the situation is no longer normal, but akratic). And I think there is a sense in which this is right: if we reconstruct my deliberation, we can describe me as deciding that I had more reason to do X, and that explains why I did X; or we describe me as having more reason to do Y, and this explains why doing X was akratic. But the fact that I can describe a situation in reconstruction in a certain way does not mean that that is what actually goes on in the situation; the description is a machinery I bring in to make sense of what I did.

So it seems like "deciding what one has (more) reason to do" and "deciding what to do" come apart: we may settle the questions in isolation from each other; neither question necessarily implies an answer to the other. Moreover, only the latter seems to be the question normally at issue in practical deliberation. It may well be that in some cases of practical deliberation (call it rationalistic deliberation) we do ask "what we have reason to do" or "what we have most reason to do." But this is a very different kind of deliberation: it is, for one, deliberation that does not resolve the question of what to do without some further process, one that either involves further deliberation ("should I do what I have most reason to do?") or a choice ("I will do what I have most reason to do")—a point Wallace discusses extensively in "Normativity, Commitment, and Instrumental Reason." At the same time, it is possible to redescribe standard deliberation in terms of "deciding what one has (more) reason to do." But that I can describe my actual deliberation in terms of a rationalistic model of deliberation does not show that my actual deliberation just is rationalistic deliberation, any more than describing relations between bodies in terms of gravity need imply that there is indeed a mysterious sui generis, mathematically constituted force governing their respective motions.

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