Reasons and Contrastive Reasons

My takeaway from the discussion of the Buridan’s Ass Paradox is that the issue turns on the relationship between reasons and contrastive reasons. Here’s one version of such a principle:

Reason R is a reason to do A (or believe p) only if, for any B (or q) that competes with A (or p), R is a reason to do A rather than B (or believe p rather than believe q).

Armed with such a principle, one can argue that the ass has no reason to choose either bale, and also has no reason to adopt any strategy for breaking the tie between the two bales. For example, the ass can’t flip a coin to break the tie. Not just because asses don’t have opposable thumbs, but because the ass has no reason to identify any result of the flip with a preference for either bale.

Note that such a principle is part of a common skeptical strategy in epistemology: you have to be able to rule out alternatives to a favored opinion in order for that opinion to be justified. Of course, standard non-skeptical epistemologies resist. Mooreans, such as Peter Klein, will want to be able to come to rationally believe, and know, ordinary claims of common sense and then deduce the falsity of skeptical hypotheses on the basis of these ordinary claims. Relevant alternatives theorists deny that you have to be able to rule out all alternatives, opting instead for having to rule out relevant alternatives. (Neither strategy will help the ass, however, since s/he has no preference for either bale, such as occurs when comparing the ordinary claims of common sense to skeptical hypotheses, and it would be a bizarre account of relevance for one of the two bales to fail to be a relevant alternative to the other.) Similar rejections of the principle above can be found in defeasibility theories, safety theories, and sensitivity theories: they all reject the strong tie between epistemic status and contrastive epistemic status.

If we think about what explanation can be given for the failure of the principle in the arena of action, it it hard to see how to extend that explanation to the arena of belief. Suppose, just for simplicity, that we are preference-satisfaction consequentialists about rational action. The literature on the question of whether there are basic actions shows that there is a heirarchical structure to this domain, akin to the relationship between means and ends. In the paradox, there is a decisive reason to eat rather than not, but one cannot eat without performing some more specific action that constitutes a way of eating. So, here’s an idea in the theory of rational action: we can tolerate violations of the connection between reasons and contrastive reasons so long as such a connection exists at a higher level of generality. Arbitrary actions can be rational in virtue of being means to a goal which is rational in virtue of a convergence of reasons and contrastive reasons.

The same considerations would extend into the doxastic realm when we are talking about the practical rationality, or even the all-things-considered rationality of holding beliefs: to navigate the world and have any decent sort of life, beliefs are needed. Pyrrhonian suspension of belief does not work well (because the idea of acquiescing to the appearances has no suitable non-doxastic interpretation). But what about epistemic rationality itself, the rationality involving the idealized perspective in which we assume only purely cognitive interests? Sometimes I think we should just be hardheaded skeptics here, and say that from this purely epistemic position, nothing passes scrutiny because there is no available explanation why reasons don’t need to be contrastive reasons (and explain away contrary inclinations by appeal to the differences between epistemic rationality, practical rationality, and all-things-considered rationality). In my more accommodating moments, though, I find Ralph’s (Wedgwood, that is) contextualist ideas quite attractive (though perhaps replacing the contextualism with something more subjective). Maybe we should say that it’s a matter of how much risk of error is tolerable in the theory of epistemic rationality in order to make possible… Well, what? Well, what I’d say is: the achievement of the surpassing epistemic good of understanding. If we set the bar very high, we reduce or eliminate the possibility of achieving understanding, and that’s bad, especially from a purely cognitive point of view. So, maybe the great good of understanding functions with respect to specific beliefs the way more generic actions function with respect to specific realizations of them: in both cases, we have an explanation why reasons don’t always need to be contrastive reasons. In some quite interesting sense, both beliefs and actions can be arbitrary and yet rational (arbitrary in the sense of not conforming to the requirement that reasons are always and everywhere contrastive reasons).

Even granting this result, there’s still the hard question of determining in which range of cases reasons have to be contrastive reasons, for surely there is such a range of cases. But since reasons don’t always need to be contrastive reasons, arbitary actions can be rational and so, perhaps, can arbitrary beliefs. Such a conclusion doesn’t by itself block the paradox, but it blocks one way of developing it.


Comments

Reasons and Contrastive Reasons — 12 Comments

  1. _So, here’s an idea in the theory of rational action: we can tolerate violations of the connection between reasons and contrastive reasons so long as such a connection exists at a higher level of generality_

    Jon,
    I’m not sure I see the rationale. It looks like you’re saying that the disjunction of particular actions A1 V A2 v An inherits the contrastive reasons of act-type T relative to ~T, if each A1, . .,An is an instance of T. And we can choose among A1, . ..,An despite the fact that A1 = A2 = A3,=. . .= An (where ‘=’ is indifference, not equality). But why can we ignore the relative value these actions? I can’t see it. We certainly could not choose any disjunct if, under the same conditions, A1 > A2 = A3 =, . . ,= An. So particular contrastive reasons among the actions is going to matter sometimes when T > ~T and it is not going to matter other times when T > ~T. The distinction seems invidious.

  2. Mike, I think you are reading the claim as saying “if such a connection exists at a higher level, then reasons don’t need to be contrastive reasons.” But the claim doesn’t say that. It says, “if such a connection exists, then we might have a case in which reasons don’t need to be contrastive reasons.” In other words, it’s left open that such cases might be violations; not that every such case is a violation.

    I don’t understand the last two sentences, however.

  3. Oh, I see. The last two sentences, applied to the bale case, say this:

    (1) If eating bale L > eating bale R, then the fact that (at the general level) eating some bale is better than eating no bale does not entail that you can arbitrarily choose R or L.

    So having a contrastive reason at the level of particular actions is relevant to the choice of actions in this case. But if that is so, then why doesn’t having no contrastive reason at the level of particular actions also matter? You urge (something close to) (2),

    (2) If eating bale L = eating bale R, then the fact that (at he general level) eating some bale is better than eating no bale does entail that you can arbitrarily choose R or L.

    I can’t see why relations at the general level license arbitrary choice at the particular level in (2) but do not license arbitrary choice at the particular level in (1).

  4. Jon,

    There’s a simpler way to say this.
    Case (1): Suppose the left bale L is equipreferable to the right bale R. So we have no reason to prefer L to R (or R to L). You choose L.
    Question: why did you choose L, there’s no contrastive reason in favor of L?
    Answer: It doesn’t matter that there is no contrastive reason for L, I can choose L anyway since there is a contrastive reason in favor of eating some bale or other.

    Case (2): Suppose the left bale L is preferable to the right bale R. So we have reason to prefer L to R. You choose R.
    Question: why did you choose R, there’s a contrastive reason in favor of L?
    Answer: It doesn’t matter that there is a contrastive reason for L, I can choose R anyway since there is a contrastive reason in favor of eating some bale or other.

    Case (2) seems wrong. Contrastive reasons at the level of particular actions do matter. I think you say that they *might not* matter. I might be missing something but I can’t see the rationale for it.

  5. Mike, I don’t see the relevance of (2) to anything I wrote. At least I don’t think so. The only situation I was remarking on was a situation where L and R are equi-preferable, and what I wrote about that doesn’t have any implications that I can see for what to say about situations where one is preferable to the other.

  6. Maybe I misunderstood you. I realize that you mention cases like (1) and do not mention cases like (2). But what you say seems to generalize to case (2). Here’s why.

    If I can ignore the fact that a reason *for L* is absent (in case (1)) then why can’t I ignore the fact that a reason *for L* is present (in case (2))?

  7. Mike, When there are contrastive reasons at the specific level, no further explanation is needed why it is rational to pick the preferred contrast. When there are no such contrastive reasons at the specific level, and it is obvious that the rational thing is not to do nothing, then some further explanation is required. The idea is that the further explanation can, in such cases, appeal to what is true at a more general level.

  8. Jon, thanks.
    It is not at all obvious to me that the rational thing in this case is not to do nothing. That might be where we disagree. The prudent thing is not to do nothing. At the specific level, if I am perfectly rational and (so) take seriously the absence of a contrastive reason, then I rationally choose neither option (i.e., I do nothing). Why should reasons at the general level filter down (or whatever the exact relation is) to the specific level and become relevant? I can’t see one motivation for this other than to make rational action fit nicely with prudent action. Or to ease the felt tension in the idea of someone *rationally* and unnecessarily starving to death. But rational action doesn’t fit nicely with prudent action.
    This is why I see what is happening at the general level as irrelevant to case (1) as it is to case (2).

  9. Mike, that helps me see what you are after here. Perhaps you can say more about the prudence/rationality distinction you have in mind. My initial inclination is to take prudence to be a rationality-making feature of a case. Then, if all other rationality-making features are controlled for, you’d be able to infer rationality from prudence. The usual examples for the paradox can be viewed as cases where no other factors are in play.

  10. Jon, here’s an example. David Gauthier famously offered a (new) theory of rational action (so-called “constrained maximization”) designed to ensure that rational agents *prosper*. This seems to me much closer to a theory of prudence. The concept of rationality that Gauthier has in mind is too plastic: basically, rational action is whatever will pay off. Hence Gauthier is prepared to claim that agents that constrain themselves and cooperate in PD’s are rational. The fact is that cooperation pays, but it’s not rational. Rational action costs in PD’s and certainly in lots of other places. So I want to call what Gauthier offers a theory of prudence or (perhaps) a theory of prospering. The concept of rational action (however it is finally described) does not make (even perfectly) rational action prosperous.

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