There Is No Reason to Believe a Reason Is a Reason


The views of H. A. Prichard and Philippa Foot are compared in regard to their responses to a certain type of skeptical problem apparently central to metaethics: the problem of giving reasons sufficient to show or justify the claim that moral reasons are, in fact, reasons for everyone to act. Both authors do not address the question directly but rather aim to show that the skeptic has not asserted anything about the ground, or lack thereof, ultimately justifying the reasonhood of moral considerations. I agree that such a question cannot be formulated, and trace the problem to a need for certainty, rather than the pointing out of some heretofore obscured fact.
The purpose of this essay is to compare two disparate ethicists in the hope of finding an appropriate general answer to the question “Why ought I to act morally?” Whether the question is asking for a reason to do what is right or a reason to aim at the good, or something along these lines, whatever the answer to the question it must not be given on moral grounds, for that threatens to become circular immediately. The question in the form I want to ask it here does not rely on a particular formulation; the question is the one that arises when our self-interest indicates acting contrary to what is morally correct, and it requests some fact or argument that will convince the interrogator that she has most, overriding, or even only reason to do the morally correct action.[1]

Let us call the problem rising from a request for such rational persuasion the
“justification problem.” It is formulated by H. A. Prichard as a request for proof that one has reason* to do what is morally correct (to do “what one ought”). Prichard’s intuitionism holds that a primitive moral sense is the origin of our regarding an action as right; and he accepts a negative answer to the justification problem: no proof could be given. The discovery of what is, in fact, morally correct to do informs the development of the moral sense, which may be more or less correct in normal adults, presumably according to the quality of their moral education, but this is a question whether an act is really right—obligatory—not whether one has reason to do right. (We shall assume that agents are correct in their judgments of the rightness, or goodness, of actions.) Philippa Foot formulates the justification problem in terms of how it can conform to practical rationality to do what is morally correct when this conflicts with self-interest. Her solution positive in that properly a functioning faculty of practical rationality recognizes relevant reasons for acting virtuously rather than otherwise; but she, too, does not aim at providing a proof that one really has reason to act as one ought. It is my contention that Foot’s response is superior to Prichard’s in that it provides an explanation of reasons for acting rightly rather than appealing to a primitive, motivating moral sense triggered by the recognition of the rightness of an action.

In the next section I will examine Prichard’s version of the justification problem, then compare his argument with Foot’s. I conclude that their responses, which
dissolve or remove the question rather than treating the justification problem as a
genuine problem, are appropriate. The worry behind the genesis of skeptical formulations of this nonproblem is, I suggest, one about confidence or a sort of psychological causation that will result in rational agents hearing the answer to the question actually acting well or aiming to do right. I begin with a well-known and notoriously difficult paper of Prichard’s, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (1912).


Prichard’s formulation of the justification problem is one about knowledge. Specifically, the knowledge that one really has reason to do what one feels obligated to do. Assume for the sake of argument that we happen always to be correct that what we feel obligated to do is in fact the morally right action, so that “what one is obligated to do” carries also the claim that one feels so obligated. A morally right action is contrasted with a good or virtuous action. An act of charity may be good an virtuous, for instance, but it is not moral unless it is also what one is in fact obligated to do and one does it because of a feeling of obligation to do that act. That is, an act is done morally when it is the right action in the circumstances and it is done from a sense of duty or obligation. In actual circumstances it may turn out that we feel obligated to A-ing, while our self-interest or “happiness” (1912: 2) apparently gives us a prima facie reason for B-ing. Upon reflection we might ask whether what we are obligated and feel obligated to do is something that we have most, only, or as I shall say overriding reason to do. The question “Is that really a reason?” is supposed to push past morally significant facts (e.g. that A-ing is just, or that it is the only thing everyone would assent to) and require as answer something that appeals to rationality: a “proof ” (see e.g. 1912: 1 and 16). Such a proof, it would seem, proceeds from some self-evident premises and by deduction shows that what one has reason to do is what is morally right whenever doing the right conflicts with pursuit of happiness. A reasonable conjecture seems to be that one might begin by analyzing the notion of a reason for action in searching out the premisses for such a proof; the knowledge that one really has overriding reason to A-ing consists in it, if there is one, which according to Prichard there is not.

The central negative claim of Prichard’s article “there is no such knowledge”
(1912: 16) because the very formulation of the problem is confused: the question
is “Illegitimate.” He explains via an analogy with an apparent regress problem in
epistemology, the question how one knows whether a state of knowledge is really a
state of knowledge. A clearer formulation of that problem shows that what is at issue is really “doubt whether our previous belief was true, a belief which we should express as the thinking that [Φ(α)]” (1912: 15). It makes no sense to question whether a state of knowledge is a state of knowledge, but it does to question whether a certain state was one of knowledge, and the former question is illegitimate, which is to say not a question at all. Similarly, the demand for a proof that one has reason to do what one is obligated to do is no demand at all: the question cannot be formulated. In short, there is no justification problem. I want now to turn to Foot’s version of the justification problem.


The exposition in Natural Goodness is plainly not aimed at the exact problem—or nonproblem—that Prichard addresses. In fact, she is concerned most centrally with “subjectivism” and the views of those who have good reason to be in sympathy with Prichard on the question of the source of reason to act correctly: emotivists and prescriptivists (2001, see Chapter 1 “A Fresh Start?”). For an intuitionist like Prichard claiming the moral rectitude of A-ing would proceed from an expression of a feeling of obligation to A. Unlike the later sub jectivists Prichard would back up the having of such a feeling by pointing to publicly available facts to be taken into consideration in the circumstances; in other words, it can be ob jectively correct that one is in fact obligated to do as one feels one is obligated. The subjectivists on the other hand would claim that since feelings (or attitudes, or other psychological features) cannot be justified on rational grounds, there is a point beyond which one has nothing to appeal to in order to prove that one’s expression of approbation or prescription for action is ob jectively correct. The similarity between the views ends after the claim that moral motivation proceeds from a feeling or attitude with an ethical or moral character. Still, the subjectivist position can be interpreted as rejecting the possibility that one can give reasons of a nonmoral kind which constitute knowledge that one ob jectively has reason to do right.

Moreover, that is the sort of objection behind this problem, which arises out of pseudo-anthropological considerations yielding information about what sorts of things are conducive to human flourishing—i.e. excellence qua human being or eudemia—that provides the objective standard grounding evaluation of behavior: that “human beings as rational creatures can ask why what has so far been said should have any effect on their conduct” (2001: 52). When we ask this why-question, what is asked for is some consideration that, if rationally accepted by an agent, constitutes knowledge that what she has reason to do is what all things considered she ought to do. Morally good actions in Prichard’s sense, duties done from a motivating feeling of obligation, are only a small subset of actions that are good (virtuous) in Foot’s sense, constituting actions displaying the virtue of dutifulness. Right actions on Foot’s view are a function of “full practical rationality” (2001: 14); they are what one ought to do “all things considered” (2001: see 56-59).[2] Full practical rationality will never yield, all things considered, reason to act viciously, and so to act contrary to dutifulness when duty is, in fact, the relevant virtue in the circumstances (circumstances in which no virtue is to be or can be expressed we leave aside). So is Foot’s claim that there is something that goes on with full practical rationality, some process of reasoning about what to do, that yields knowledge that what one has in fact overriding reason to do is what is “right” (trivially), what is good, whenever that conflicts with self-interest? If so, her view would conflict with the considerations Prichard brought to bear.

The answer to that question is, in a word, no: she, like Prichard, uses limits on the intelligibility of the skeptical question to show that there is in fact no demand for reasons being made. The argument runs parallel to the claim that one has overriding reason to do what one ought whenever this conflicts with self-interest. For Prichard grasp of the relevant considerations yields via “moral thinking” the conclusion that A-ing is right, and this produces the motivating feeling of obligation. Feeling a moral obligation is a product of apperception—of immediate, which is to say un-reflective, even “unconscious,” reaction to information processed by the general reasoning faculty. A properly functional moral thinking faculty therefore in its nature produces a motivational[3] state. For Foot grasp of the relevant considerations yields via “practical rationality” the conclusion that A-ing is not vicious; prudence—a virtue sometimes considered one of self-interest—may sometimes trump other virtues. So the precise question Prichard is concerned with turns out for Foot’s view to be a question which of the virtues is the one that all things considered should be exemplified in the circumstances. I do not examine how she would handle the possibility of such a conflict. Rather I mean to have her view address a related problem brought by a “skeptic”: why one should do what the virtuous person “must” do (2001: 64). The skeptic rejects that she must accept that she has reason to do right—i.e. to act well—because she sees no fact treated as a relevant consideration, from which to conclude that she has overriding reason to act well.

Foot does not claim that there is a way to gain knowledge, or proof, that one really has reason to do right; she, like Prichard, treats the relevant question as unintelligible, that is, as no question at all. The skeptic’s demand for reasons, that is for justification, might be answered with (M) facts in light of which a certain act is virtuous or vicious in the circumstances, which is not really skeptical in that it is looking for mundane information: moral reasons such as that A-ing redresses a wrong done and is thereby just, or (R) facts about why acting fully practically rationally just is acting well, or (P) something else, perhaps a proof in the transcendental, Kantian sense. Foot provides R by pointing out that practical rationality is the sort of thing that takes relevant features of the circumstances as practical considerations (call them prima facie reasons, see 2001: 58-9), so there is no need to give “reasons” for taking relevant facts into consideration. If one has the faculty of practical rationality at all one will be taking facts into consideration. It follows from examination of the concept of practical reason that if one’s practical reasoning is working properly, it will not (in ideal circumstances) leave things out, consider irrellevancies, or mis-“weight” the prima facie reasons. That is what practical reasoning consists in. Further skepticism, however, becomes senseless, for to “ask for a reason for acting rationally is to ask for a reason where reasons must a priori have come to an end.” There is no non-rational and non-irrational standpoint from which to ask for rational justification of acting rationally; acting more or less rationally is the mode of action for humans. If another type of justification is required, i.e. non-moral and non-rational “justification,” the burden will be on the skeptic to explain what this might be a demand for.


So far we have seen two views aiming to answer a single type of problem. These
two views reply to that problem in the same fashion: by dissolving the apparent problem rather than attempting to answer a non-question. I shall for convenience
call it a skeptical question regarding the ultimate “justification” for doing what one ought. Both Prichard and Foot address skeptical questions, and give similar answers. Prichard answers a narrower skeptical question than Foot; his topic can be seen to be subsumed under hers. Prichard’s skeptic appears to request justification of type P, that is a proof of some kind and not a mere fact, while Foot’s skeptic appears to ask for reasons that are perhaps M, perhaps R, perhaps P. The similarity betweenthe views becomes more apparent if Prichard’s skeptic is rephrased as asking why her moral sense is reason-giving. Their replies to the skeptic are the same in that both regard demands for P not as demands at all but as failed attempts to pose a

Prichard denies that it is possible to give a relevant non-moral justification. The
ought of moral judgments must come in as part of a premiss of a moral justification (it does not appear in the conclusion ex nihilo). But no such justification is necessary since obligation isn’t the sort of thing that demands independent justification; the feeling of obligation is motivating and thereby a reason—it makes no sense to request a reason to accept that a reason is a reason. In her (1977) Foot put forward the claim that all moral judgments take the form of hypothetical imperatives; in effect, claims that one ought to do this or that take the form “If you aim to be virtuous, and A-ing is the virtuous action in the circumstances, then do A.” That is, there is nothing that will cause one to aim at virtue, as it were, that constitutes a justification for doing so. Foot’s (2001) method of getting around this apparent difficulty is, like Prichard, to accept that there is no non-moral justification for doing right, for again there does not need to be. It makes no sense to request a reason to act on reasons; one accepts a reason as such as soon as one notices that it is a reason.[4] Asking for a reason to do so would not be to engage in a regress of the kind Prichard disparages in the theory of knowledge, but rather not to ask a question at all. One might as well ask whether the piece of paper in our hands as a piece of paper.


There may still be skeptical tendencies amongst moral philosophers, expecially those of a Kantian bent, because they may have been trained to attempt a priori proofs, and so are perhaps persuaded that one can show why someone who rejects that one has overriding reason to do what one ought has simply missed out on something. I regard the denial of the existence of a problem in this connexion as the correct response. It is difficult to imagine some way to prove that the premisses of such a proof should be accepted, and so forth. Rather, we should see that it is a part of human action, that complex, however theoretically described, of considering facts, concluding that some action is what one will do and doing so, that we think there are justifications to which we can appeal which make our actions “rational”—reasons. We might for instance notice that Anscombe’s analysis of the intentionality of action (1963) in terms of a possible appeal to reasons allows for a variety of mechanisms by which facts come to be taken as reasons and to be weighed against each other. It does not seem disputable that intentional actions, the kind for which we are most often morally culpable, essentially involve reasons (even if these turn out to be “mere” facts that explain only a causal relation between a past event and an action).

The quest for reasons to accept that one has overriding reason to do right in most circumstances (if not all) is, I think, misguided. At least some of the skeptics have confused a justificatory relation for a causal one. That is, the request for “reasons” to believe that one has reason to act well is in fact a request for something that will actually cause the skeptic to believe that she has such reasons. One can imagine a pathology the symptom of which is claiming to accept some fact as a reason for A-ing but nevertheless claiming that she does not have reason to A. The skeptic, similarly, wants something to make her certain, and this we need not supply, for such facts as we have at our command are not “a sort of medicine which is taken in the hope that it will work” (Foot, 1977a: 104). Our best strategy, then, will be to give everyone a proper moral education, so that by the time a child reaches an age where she can formulate the skeptical pseudo-question, she does not feel the worry which prompts it.

[1] In the interest of avoiding unnecessary complication I shall waive discussion whether moral reasons (i.e. the immediate reason prompting a particular action) are overriding, decisive, greater in some magnitude, or exclusive. I adopt the terminology ‘overriding’ with the caveat that I regard it as neutral on the question (once one has accepted that one has reason to do what is morally correct) what the relation is in which one’s reason to do what is morally correct is more than one’s reason to pursue one’s self-interest.“What one has reason to do” may be cashed out in any of those ways without turning the thrust of the present argument, since it is concerned with the question whether one really has reason to do what is morally correct rather than how that reason stands to one’s reasons to do otherwise. I take “self-interest” not to include some ultimate self-realization or telos of which the agent is not (and often could not be) aware of; it has to do with such mundane things as love, money, and power.
[2] Here Foot appeals to Davidson’s “How is Weakness of the Will Possible?” (2001) in her account of what it means for all things to be considered.
[3] That is not yet to say "reason-constituting."
[4] I take it that accepting a reason is a sort of “mental act” not dissimilar to mentally, which is to say without speaking or using pen and paper, adding two and two.

* Anscombe, G. E. M. 1963. Intention, second edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press.
* Davidson, D. 2001a (1980). “How is Weakness of the Will Possible?” reprinted in
Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Foot, P. A. 1958. “Moral Arguments” reprinted in (Foot 1977), pp. 96-109. Origi-
nally published in Mind, vol. 67.
* —— 1972. “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” reprinted in (Foot
1977), pp. 157-73 with additional material. Originally published in The Philosophical
Review, vol. 81, no. 3, July.
* —— 2001. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* —— 1977. Virtues and Vices, and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford:
Clarendon Press.
*Mackie, J. L. 1998. “The Sub jectivity of Values” reprinted in J. Rachels (ed.) Ethical Theory 1: The Question of Objectivity, pp. 59-84. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
*Prichard, H. A. 1912. “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” Mind, vol. XXI,
no. 81, January. Repinted in Prichard, H. A. 1968. Moral Obligation, and Duty and
Interest, pp. 1-17. Oxford: Oxford University Press. References are to the 1968

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Blogger fizhburn said...

This is the first draft of a paper that ended up being about moral skepticism and involved Mackie and Prichard but was otherwise entirely changed. For the better. The argumentation here is sloppy. But the point remains: to the question why we need ultimate (in the relevant sense) justification for moral claims, we simply answer, "We don't."

20/12/07 15:45  

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