Friday, January 22, 2010


That there is a reason of strength s to do A is itself a reason of strength s to do A. Why? Well, suppose I can't see any reason to do A, but an expert (say, God) tells me that I have a reason of strength s to do A, and doesn't tell me what the reason is. Since I don't know what that reason is, I can't act on it. But I can act on the fact that I have a reason of strength s, and it's intuitively clear that this fact provides me with a reason of strength s. And, of course, the fact that there is a reason of strength s to do A is distinct from that reason.

This provides a simple counterexample to the following plausible principle:

  1. If I have two distinct reasons of finite strength s to do A, I have more reason to do A than if I had only one distinct reason to do A.
For whenever I have a reason R of strength s to do A, I have another reason to do A, namely the fact that I have a reason to do A, and this reason has the same strength s. Moreover, the two reasons are distinct—I can act on the one without acting on the other. But it is also clear that these two reasons together do not provide me with any more reason to act than one of them by itself. (Otherwise, there would be a third reason, the fact of the existence of this pair of reasons, and that third reason would have even greater strength, and the process would generate an infinity of reasons with an infinite weight—out of a single first-order reason.)

To fix up (1), we seem to need some notion of one reason subsuming another. Thus, the first-order reason R subsumes the second-order order reason. And then we might say that (1) is true with the qualification that the two reasons are subsumption-independent, i.e., no part of either reason is subsumed in the other reason.

Are there other examples of the phenomena above? Maybe reasons of love are like this. So, if I didn't love my son, I'd still have a reason of duty to care for him. I do love him, and this imposes on me a reason of love to care for him. But the strength of reason one has to care for a child that one loves is no greater than the strength of reason one has to care for a child that one doesn't love. (The fault is no lesser if one doesn't love the child!) So, maybe, there is a subsumption here—maybe when the love is present, it provides a different reason, but one that subsumes the reason of duty, and hence is not superadded to it strengthwise. If so, this would let one maintain two plausible theses that otherwise appear to be in tension:

  1. Love is a virtue.
  2. Love creates reasons to act for the good of the beloved.
The tension is due to the fact that a virtue recognizes already present reasons rather than creating reasons. The courageous person has no more reason to stand firm in battle (assume this is a case where one ought to stand firm) than the cowardly person. Likewise, the loving father has no more reason to act for the sake of his child than the unloving father. But this conflicts with (3). However, once we recognize the phenomenon of reason subsumption, or maybe just the failure of (1), we have a way of holding on to both (2) and (3). Love creates new reasons—but they are subsuming (or subsumed?) reasons, rather than reasons that add to the reasons prior to the love. And maybe the same is true for all the virtues. This would let one say, as seems correct, that the brave person who stands firm in battle is doing so for reasons of courage.

1 comment:

Mike Almeida said...

This is a version of the principle that evidence for evidence is evidence. But that's false, I think. I can have as evidence for my belief that there are black bird in the vicinity the proposition that E = there are birds in the vicinity and they are black. E' = I observe a red bird. E' is evidence for my evidence E, but it is not evidence that there are blackbirds in the vicinity.