A recently influential idea in the philosophy of normativity is reasons primitivism. Reasons primitivists hold that we can give no account of what it is for some consideration to be a (normative) reason. At most we can say that reasons are considerations that count in favour (or against) some response, or that when there is reason to do something, there is something to be said for doing that thing. In this post (which is intended in the spirit of Dave and Dave’s request for half-baked ideas…) I want to raise a worry about this view.
While reasons are considerations which count in favour, it does not seem that all considerations that count in favour are reasons. For example, it seems that the fact that being tall makes it easier to see bands at concerts counts in favour of being tall. But I don't think we should say that this is a reason to be tall. Reasons are the sorts of things which can justify or make rational. But being tall is not the kind of thing which can be rational or justified. Similarly, if I would enjoy the film, then that seems to be something to be said for seeing the film. This seems true even if it is not possible for me to see the film. By contrast, if it's not possible for me to see the film, there seems to be no reason for me to do so.
These examples suggest that there are certain necessary conditions on reasons which do not apply to favouring as such. For instance:
R is a reason for S to A only if A-ing is a type of action or attitude.
R is a reason for S to A only if S can A.
Others – including some reasons primitivists – have suggested further conditions on reasons. For example, some suggest:
R is a reason for S to A only if S can A for the reason that R.
R is a reason for S to A only if S can know that R is a reason to A.
Again, neither of these conditions apply to favouring. Thus to borrow an example from Mark Schroeder, if Nate loves successful surprise parties but hates unsuccessful surprise parties, then the fact that there is a surprise party at home counts in favour of Nate’s going home. But it is not a reason for which Nate could go home. Nor could Nate know that this fact is a reason for him to go home.
Is it legitimate for reasons-primitivists to endorse conditions of this sort? On the face of it, such conditions appear puzzling. In general, necessary connections require some sort of explanation. A standard way to explain a necessary connection is by appealing to the nature of one of the notions or properties involved. But reasons primitivists don’t seem to be able to do this. There is nothing in the notion of a favourer which supports these conditions. But reasons primitivists claim that this is all there is to the notion of a reason. So it is unclear how reasons primitivists can endorse these conditions. However, if reasons primitivists cannot endorse conditions of this sort, that seems to undercut the plausibility of the view, insofar as at least some such conditions seem highly plausible.