On the Social Status of Reasons

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Mark Risjord has argued that we should not regard explanations of intentional behaviour that appeal to reasons as causal explanations. His approach is to differentiate between the possession of pro-attitudes (usually belief-desire pairs) and having reasons for action. In his view, although having a pro-attitude can cause an action and thereby figure in a causal explanation, having a pro-attitude is not sufficient for having a reason for action. For a pro-attitude to count as a reason it must satisfy certain social conditions. In his view, the social status of reasons precludes regarding them as causes, in which case explanations appealing to an agent’s reasons cannot be causal explanations. I argue that Risjord’s approach is unsuccessful because it works with an excessively thick conception of normativity and because the contrast he identifies between reasons and pro-attitudes is extremely unstable in fairly simple explanatory contexts. While some minimal degree of rationality must be present in order to regard a pro-attitude as a reason, this can involve a fairly radical disconnect between an agent and his or her community, in which case reasons need not be as deeply social as Risjord assumes.


Keywords: Reason, Cause, Explanation, Normativity
Stream: Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies, Humanities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: On the Social Status of Reasons


Dr. Neil Campbell

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

My work deals with two central issues in the philosophy of mind. The first explores the problem of consciousness. We are conscious beings, yet we lack an adequate account of how the brain generates consciousness and it seems impossible to explain the subjective character of experience in physical terms. I am particularly interested in what these obstacles to understanding consciousness physically entail about the limits of physicalism—the view that human beings are entirely physical creatures. The second issue is the problem of mental causation. This concerns questions about how thoughts and desires in the mind can result in physical actions involving the body. I am currently working on a book in which I argue that nonreductive versions of physicalism offer a viable account of mental causation without lapsing into a pernicious form of epiphenomenalism. A central part of this project involves distinguishing reason-giving as a distinct species of explanation from causal explanation.

Ref: I08P0206