Reasons, objective and explanatory : an Anscombean defense of reasons externalism



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This is an essay about reasons for action. It begins with two rather ordinary observations. The first is that these two uses of the term ‘reason’ roughly correspond with the two main roles that a reason can play: the role of favoring a prospective course of action, and the role of explaining action. Each of these roles seems crucial to a philosophical account of reasons, and it is not obvious that either has claim to priority. The second observation is that accommodating each of these roles seems to place restrictions on what we can say about reasons for action, and those who lean toward giving priority to one role rather than the other tend also to give priority to the corresponding set of restrictions. They take that set as given, and then focus their efforts on finding a way to meet the other set if they can. Accommodating the explanatory role has seemed to many to require that a reason bear some relation to the motivations of the agent for whom it is reason. One might wonder: what sense could there be in calling something a reason for me to act if it were not in any way capable of explaining my being moved to act? I argue, however, that accepting this sort of internalist condition on something’s being a reason to act precludes accepting a condition of objectivity that is imposed on us if we wish to accommodate the favoring role: sometimes, at least, when we have a reason to act, we could not cease to have that reason simply by having a (perhaps radically) different set of attitudes. I then consider whether the reverse might be true of externalist theories. Does taking the favoring role as one’s starting point preclude a full account of the explanatory role of reasons? I argue that it does not. I show that an Anscombean conception of intentional action allows for a fairly clean solution to a pair of puzzles that motivate this worry. This approach relieves much of the pressure to think of reasons as being tied to motivational attitudes.