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June 24, 2015


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Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Kyla. Two quick thoughts that were provoked in me.

First, it seems absolutely right that ordinary people don't know the reasons for most of their desires (and beliefs), even though people do have them for reasons. And this seems well-supported by recent research in moral psychology and cognitive science generally. As Jon Haidt says, much of our attitudes arise from automatic processes to which we have little introspective access (the "elephant" in us that our more controlled mental processes, the "rider," can barely control).

(I think this actually undermines much of the significance of his moral dumbfounding studies. It's unsurprising that people can't articulate why they, e.g., think "harmless" incest between consenting adults is wrong. There's nothing special about moral judgment there. This is a point others have made, especially Sue Dwyer in a 2009 article.)

Second, with that said, however, much of cognitive science is apparently revealing that our automatic processes often lead us astray. I think there's a serious worry about letting our automatic processes go unchecked (whether or not they are characteristically deontological, as Josh Greene argues). While I think most people in ordinary situations do pretty well in automatic mode, I do worry more when they confront fairly complex, new, or unfamiliar problems. (This general worry I do share with Greene, although I don't tie it to utilitarianism.) And, to your last point, confronting new problems precisely arises when our students in college (and adults generally) are reflecting on what they've absorbed in childhood. Not reflecting on one's reasons often perpetuates worrisome pieces of the status quo, such as discrimination, inaction regarding climate change, and so on.

I'm sympathetic to your final call for humility, but I'd prefer something that seems more in the middle. We should encourage one another to be reflective but emphasize that failure to articulate doesn't by itself mean that one's reasons are junk or that one must suspend belief. Perhaps we can have our cake and interrogate it too?

Such a cool post! And great advice.

At first I thought you were making a distinction like the one Dave Shoemaker makes between states or attitudes that are attributable to us (and so different from mere urges or whims), on the one hand, and states or attitudes that we are answerable for (and thus connected to our reasons in some way). But on second thought it sounds like you are actually encouraging a distinction between two different ways in which a state or attitude could be something we are "answerable" for.

On the first way, it's connected in the right way to reasons. On the second way, it's connected in the right way to reasons, and also we're in a position to articulate those reasons. And your point (I think) is that we might have the first sort of answerability connection to our states and attitudes without having the second sort of connection. I like it!

I wonder whether "being in a position to report" the reasons depends also on who is asking for the report?

Really interesting stuff, Kyla, thanks. I'm wondering if you could say more about the difference between attitudes one has for inarticulable reasons and attitudes one has for no reasons at all, that is, as pure emotional commitments, say, that are formed and remain in place independently of justifying reasons and judgment altogether.

This is relevant to some of the attitudes you cite, including fear. We might think fear is an attitude outside the realm of *justificatory* reason, but nevertheless for which there are reasons (reasons of fit). But I also have in mind attitudes like love or more general caring that have no *articulable* reasons because there just *are* no reasons in their favor, e.g., being a fan of a particular sports team, or having certain personal purely emotional attachments (things whose up-and-down fortunes dispose one to respond emotionally in sync, regardless of one's judgments of their worth).

I apologize: this is a dashed-off reply to your thoughtful post. But I wanted to get it out there.

Thanks for such a fun and thoughtful post! You might be interested in a paper I wrote about love in last January's issue of Ethics, where I defend a similar view.

I do think David's worry is serious, though. One way to answer it--which is part of how I try to answer it in the love paper--is to concede that anything done for a reason has to be explicable, but point out that lots of perfectly good explanations aren't articulable in general terms, or in abstraction from particular cases. For instance, one way to give a justifying explanation of a particular response--which comes up a lot in the rule-following literature--is just to cite other responses that make the one in question intelligible as a natural way of "going on." (I think a lot of explanations in aesthetics are like this, for instance.) While it might be possible to articulate a general rule that covers all the cases, there's no reason to think there has to be.

Thanks to you all for your engagement, thoughtful comments and helpful reading suggestions! Rather than post a single, long response, I am going to break my responses up into several comments below. I welcome your further thoughts.

Josh, I do favor a middle way (and I like your metaphor for it). This post emphasizes the error of overemphasizing articulacy about our reasons, but I don’t mean to deny that there are other errors, vices opposed to the one that concerns me here. I do think that philosophers are more prone to the error of overemphasizing the role of articulacy, and that this shows up in our theory and our practice.

I’m not particularly qualified to comment on empirical studies, but I do think that the view may rely on some fairly modest empirical claims. The view that I am advancing does seem to be deeply at odds with the idea that “dumbfounding” reveals much of normative significance. So it’s interesting that that very tension seems to appear in Haight’s own work.

I am quite concerned about the ways that our automatic processes may lead us astray, especially that they may do so in systematic or thoroughgoing ways. (I am not concerned about them leading us to think deontologically, since I think that some version of deontology is correct.) I am concerned about phenomena like implicit bias, which—as I understand it—we have reason to think have misleading effects on both the way we perceive situations and the way we reason about them. (For this reason I think that we shouldn’t be too sanguine about how we operate in “familiar contexts.”)

So I agree that these sorts of processes ought not go unchecked. But it’s a further question whether holding ourselves and others to the standard of being able to state the reasons for our commitments is the right way to check them. The concerns above don’t make me doubt that we often have good reasons about which we are inarticulate. One important point in the neighborhood is that we shouldn’t confuse being thoughtful and reflective about our commitments with being capable of saying what the reasons for them are. It’s not as if the choice is between unmitigated dogmatism on the one hand, and an ability to give the unconditioned justification of our commitments on the other, so it seems to me.

The gold standard would be to have some way of sorting, from the inside, when our purportedly reason-responsive attitudes are trustworthy and when they aren’t. Ability to articulate the reasons is a tempting standard. If it worked it would allow us to do this sorting. But if I’m right then being able say what my reasons are is neither necessary nor sufficient for having good reasons, and the sorting that articulacy allows may well be a sorting into categories that we shouldn’t care much about.

I would be very surprised if we could discover any rule or procedure that would allow us to reliably sort in the right way. (And I am rationalist enough in my sympathies that I do find this kind of disconcerting.) But, in the absence of such a thing, we can at least avoid certain mistakes. The mistakes that concern me here are overlooking the limitations and fallibility of our capacities to say what the grounds for our commitments are, identifying reflection on our commitments with only the sort of reasoning that could be spelled out in propositions, and mistaking articulacy for justification. There are mistakes on the other side too, mistakes of underplaying the role of argument. Those might be widespread in various parts of our culture, and philosophers might feel particularly called to confront them. But, in our fervor to confront this sort of error, we should look out for the possibility of errors of our own.

I hope that that’s responsive to your concern!

Neal, I think that that almost characterizes my view. I do tend to think of us as being answerable for any attitudes of a sort that purport to be reason responsive, and that this includes not just beliefs and intentions but also, eg, desires and emotions. We’re answerable in the sense that it is apt to ask someone for the reasons for these states, whereas it is not apt to ask for the reasons (in the same sense) for a headache. (Probably also not for a whim.) But I incline towards thinking of the two relations that you distinguish as along a continuum rather than as different kinds. We can be more or less articulate about the reasons for various attitudes, but being less articulate about them does not amount to not having reasons or forming our attitudes on the bases of them. Do you like that?

I like the point about our ability to articulate the reasons being sensitive to who is asking, and I would be interested in some examples of the phenomena you have in mind. At least loosely related is the further idea that what counts as “the reasons” for a commitment probably depends on what the relevant challenges or alternatives are, so it may be misleading to talk about the reasons in an unqualified way.

David, it seems to me that there are two different phenomena that you might be interested in under the heading of “attitudes for which we have no reasons.” The difference turns on whether the states that you have in mind, states that “are formed and remain in place independently of justifying reasons and judgment altogether” are thereby defective. Eg, an intention that met that description would be defective, but a headache would not be.

It seems to me that a lot of our attitudes are such that they are both properly evaluable according to whether they respond to our judgments about the reasons for them and often—maybe even standardly—resistant to these judgments. Desires and emotions are, I think, like this. So I wouldn’t say that fear or love are outside of the realm of justificatory reasons, if this means that it isn’t apt to ask after the reasons for them, or that their divergence from our judgments about these reasons is not any sort of normative failure. Does that amount to a disagreement with you?

When you characterize the relevant attitudes as those for which there “are no reasons” it sounds like you are thinking of attitudes that should be classed with headaches in that they are not failing by any relevant normative standard in being unresponsive to reasons. Sports fandom is an interesting case. There are reasons relevant to the role that such things ought to play in our lives, including our emotional lives, but I agree that there aren't reasons that would fully determine the content of our commitments, say by picking out a particular team that we should support. Here it seems relevant whether the sports fans are willing to regard these as matters of brute preference or mere taste. If so, then they don't purport take their affiliation to be reason-responsive, and that looks to me like a promising way to distinguish between the two classes of attitudes you mention at the outset.

But I may be missing the force of what you are saying, because of may be misconstruing the categories that interest you. Please do follow up if so.

Ben, thanks for the recommendation. I will look it up. Offhand, it sounds to me like your view might still require more by way of articulacy than I think that we should, but I would like to see more details of the view before settling on that opinion.

Thanks for checking it out!

For what it's worth, my view actually requires a lot less articulacy than the response to David I suggested would imply. Roughly, I argue that we determine our reasons for love (or, strictly speaking, the facts about our ends that ground those reasons) as we go along, through ongoing engagement with our beloveds. (A consequence of this view is that love doesn't have to be explicable in advance at all, and the process of working out an explanation is infinitely completable and open-ended.)

Very interesting post. Some valenced reactions we have, such as liking or preferring chocolate ice cream to vanilla, seem to me to be all the reason we need for choosing one way rather than another. To the question of why one likes the former rather than the latter one can try to explicate what it is about the flavor that one likes but that articulacy will, obviously, fall short of mandating that all who are wise will share this taste. Eventually, such articulacy would just end in something like “and I just like that cool, creamy flavor.” Of course there will be a causal story about one’s preference, perhaps an evolutionary explanation, but those are not automatically anything worth thinking of as one’s secret rationale for the preference. One just favors some things over others. Some such preferences are less mysterious to oneself and others, fit in with one’s other preferences in predictable ways, are less unusual, and invite the request for more articulateness to a lesser degree than the preference for parsley on the moon. But I don’t see why we should think the parsley preference is brute while the chocolate preference involves a hidden to oneself rationale that nonetheless really exists. I was not sure if you were saying that there was such a difference or not.

Very helpful reply! I see the need to appreciate the distinction between being reflective and being articulate. I wonder if they are so separable in practice, though. For me at least it's difficult to reflect well on my attitudes, commitments, and the reasons behind them without attempting to articulate them---not necessarily in speech but in thought or writing. So I just worry articulation of a certain sort is fairly bound up with reflection. Consider the saying "You don’t know it until you’ve taught it." I find the truth in this is not so much in teaching the information per se but in articulating it, whether that's in speech, lecture notes, a book, etc. Still, I take the point that good reflection needn't always result from anything like articulation.

David, I don't see any reason to deny anything you say about ice cream. It seems important to me that the agent can regard the preferences as normatively optional in just the way that you describe, and acknowledge them as such. I'm also quite sympathetic to Scanlon's line that these preferences don't give us reason to act per se, though they are often indicators of what we would enjoy, and anticipated enjoyment can give us reasons to act.

Maybe the parsley-on-the-moon desire can be understood to be just like this, but I am a little doubtful. It also seems to matter that in the flavor case, while we won't be able to say enough to explain why, eg, vanilla is to be preferred to chocolate, we can usually say at least something about what makes vanilla good. I was thinking that the parsley-on-the-moon desire was purportedly not like this. If so, then there might really be a difference. I'm tempted to reach for the useful, but I suspect slippery, term "intelligible" for this: the desire for vanilla ice cream is intelligible, but the parsley-on-the-moon desire is not. But, whatever that means, it doesn't mean that the person who prefers vanilla does so for reasons that should move anyone.

Yes, that's a good question, Josh. I am confident about two things, and have a question about a further thing.

I am confident that we should not expect any episode of reflection to lead to full articulacy about a commitment of any significance, and so shouldn't take failure of articulacy as reason to distance ourselves from our commitments. And I am confident that articulacy often serves as an appropriate guiding ideal, so that trying to say why we are committed to what we are committed to can be useful and important. I try to communicate these two attitudes to my students by both pressing them to "say more" about why they hold the position that they do, and, if and when they can't, assuring them that that's ok and to be expected and that they should just keep thinking about it.

My question, a matter about which I feel genuinely uncertain, is whether articulacy is always an appropriate guiding ideal for our commitments, or whether it might sometimes lead us astray, even if we acknowledge that it's a standard that we can never fully attain. I now think that this latter thing--that articulacy about our reasons is a guiding ideal that we can never fully attain--is the way that Ben is recommending that we think about love. That may well be right.

But maybe there are other ways of reflecting well on our commitments that do not take the form of saying, or even trying to say, what the reasons for them are. I have a suspicion that there may be much in the aesthetics literature that could help me develop this thought, because it seems to me that telling stories or creating art might involve a kind of thoughtfulness about or reflection on our commitments that is not a matter of giving arguments for them. But I'm way out of my depth here, and as I say this is something about which I feel genuinely undecided.

I do wonder what Ben thinks about this in the case of love. If you ask me why I love someone, and I respond by telling you a story about that person, might that be a more adequate, complete, or appropriate answer than any further attempt to distill from the story a statement of what I take my reasons to be?

This is dashed off, but: I think the idea of explaining love with stories is perfect; metaphors may function similarly. (For points of contact in the aesthetics literature, you might want to check out David Hills, Nick Riggle, and especially Alexander Nehamas.)

For my money the Scanlon view is embarrassed by the question of what we mean by enjoyment. Is it a flavor of sensation that one likes or prefers or is it a flavor of sensation (or family of flavors of sensations) understood as having no conceptual connection to the agent who feels it having a favorable reaction to it? If the former, then desires and such are still behind reasons of enjoyment. If the latter, most have not found reason-giving a sensation that one does not in any way care for.

You say that there are reasons that favor eating vanilla that should move anyone. So maybe you are thinking "that it is creamy" is a reason for anyone, even people who don't at all like creaminess?

So, I'm curious about the love example and wonder if you could say slightly more about it. My inclination is to think that there are good explanatory reasons for loving someone---they smell right, they make me happy, they impress me---but that these reasons aren't normatively or, in any obvious way, motivationally sufficient for loving someone. Rather, loving someone isn't the sort of state that needs to be defended on the basis of normative reasons at all. This doesn't seem to make it a ''brute preference'' or a whim. At least as I understand the pejorative aspect of these terms.

To put it another way, I think:

"Normally, though we don’t arrive at our desires by reasoning, we have them for reasons."

itself contains an interesting ambiguity. If ''reason'' here means ''explanatory'' (causal/psychological) reasons, I completely agree, but don't see why it's relevant. It's often hard to explain why we're in this or that state, but that's just because explanation is often difficult. And the job of explanatory reasons isn't to rationalize our desires internally, but to explain why we have them at all.

If it means ''motivating'' or ''normative'' reason or whatever hodgepodge of the two, I think I disagree on grounds that if we can't articulate our motivating reasons, then we aren't in a position to give a justificatory story, and hence we can't be said to have the state for motivating (i.e. rationalizing) reasons. (In this case, we could still have explanatory reasons---I'm in love with them because they remind me of my earliest friend---but these aren't even close to being justificatory reasons in the sense that they could rationalize them. Rather, we just have a causal and explanatory story about why I am in this state. Of course, there is an interesting subclass of cases here where we have reasons and need to just dredge them up.)

The most interesting case here seems to be the inability to give justifying reasons for being in love. But I don't see why we should accept that we have motivating reasons for love if we are (and not just by lack of introspection) unable to articulate them. Why not just say that we aren't in love arbitrarily (it's not a mere whim, is completely explicable on sufficient psychological investigation perhaps, etc), but that we don't have any justifying reason for being in love (and, moreover, we don't actually need one...)

Apologies for the slow response time everyone, and thanks for your ongoing engagement.

David, I wonder if maybe you might have misread something or missed a negation. I didn't mean to say that there are reasons for, e.g., preferring vanilla that should move anyone. Only that a taste for vanilla does seem to me to be intelligible: it at least makes sense to us what it is that someone could like about the flavor, even if we ourselves prefer chocolate. The desire to put parsley on the moon, conceived as unmotivated in the sense that one has it for no reason, is--I take it--not even supposed to be like this. It is a state that is not even purporting to respond to something that is good or valuable about having parsley on the moon, but is just a whim.

As far as the Scanlon view goes, it seems to me that we ought to distinguish between desire or preference on the one hand, and enjoyment or pleasure on the other. I would think that the latter are conceptually positively valenced experiences. And what gives a particular person pleasure may vary from what gives another pleasure. But it still seems to me that it is this pleasure or enjoyment, rather than the desire, that is most helpfully called the reason in cases in which in makes sense to act according to our tastes. The desire could come apart from the pleasure: I could want the chocolate, but then find that I actually don't enjoy it that much. When they do, the reason seems to follow the enjoyment, not the want.

I'm not at all sure that much rides on this for me though. Maybe it generates a kind of counterexample to my strong claim that "attractions...the justification for which it does not even make sense to query...would not seem to provide or indicate reason to do anything in particular." Perhaps I should back off a bit on the strength of that, acknowledging that such attractions could provide or indicate opportunities for pleasure, and that that could be reason giving. It would still seem to me that unmotivated desires, so construed, would be of marginal normative significance.

Jack, thanks. It’s definitely normative and not explanatory reasons that interest me.

Of course I agree that “loving someone isn’t the sort of state that needs to be defended on the basis of normative reasons at all,” if that means that we can be perfectly justified in loving someone while being inarticulate about why we do. In this sense we don’t need to defend ourselves. But I disagree that we neither have nor need any justifying reasons for love.

I’m not claiming that we will have completely justifying reasons for loving the particular people that we do, as against all possible alternative candidates. But it does seem sensible to ask after the reasons that could justify organizing large swaths of our lives around certain individuals, as opposed to not doing that. Appealing to love, where that is itself conceived as a state that we are in for no (normative) reason, does not seem to be a sufficient response to this query. But it seems to me that, thought of as itself reason-responsive, love can play this justifying role. If we think of love as a sort of direct appreciation of the value of the beloved, then this value can provide both reasons for loving him and for doing the sorts of things that we do out of love. But we won’t standardly be able to state these reasons in propositional form, nor does it generally seem very important to try.

Even so, I think that you and I may just be in fundamental disagreement. And I think that what may explain this is that you are seeing, while I am failing to see, a middle ground between two possibilities: At least part of what is driving me is the thought that love—along with many other sorts of attitudes—isn’t a brute psychological state or whim. My suggestion is that what distinguishes these attitudes from a brute states or whims is that they at least purport to be reason-responsive. They can therefore be queried for their reasons and there is a normative connection between our judgments about these reasons and the states themselves. I take you to be denying that love has these sorts of features, but also denying that it’s a mere whim. Perhaps that is right, but I wonder if you could try to say more about what characterizes the attitudes that fall into neither of these two categories.

Oh, I took it as read that we were talking about informed desires. No one thinks misinformed desires provide reasons. But I think we disagree about less than I thought when you say that enjoyment is necessarily favorably valenced. That makes me think you don't go for the kind of flavor of sensation, neo-Benthamite conception of pleasure or enjoyment that some try to use in place of contingent favoring attitudes such as liking or wanting. If your point is just that narrowly construed uninformed desires are at best indicators, I would not disagree. And if you allow that contingent favoring attitudes such as liking or enjoyment give reasons then we disagree, perhaps, only about how broad that category of reasons is.

So, interesting. I'll try to say something about what I think this middle ground is, though I'm not sure you'll find it satisfying.

I don't think that there's much of a reasons-related difference between mere whims or urges and the sort of state I think love may sometimes be. Rather, what I was thinking is that calling a psychological state ''brute'' or a ''mere whim'' implied that it was not endorsed (say, by a higher-order desire to maintain the state, etc) and, perhaps, felt closer to hunger pangs, fear, or momentary undirected rage, etc. Whereas with love, though I don't think it has to be reasons-responsive, does seem to me to be the sort of state we often endorse in this way and, moreover, feels different. My central thought was that it's a perfectly reasonable response to ''why do you love them?'' to say ''I just do.'' which struck me as indicative of there being no normative reason at all. I suppose I don't see why we should assume there are inarticulable reasons running in the background instead of thinking that there's simply no (normative) reason. (though I'm very happy to say that we can evaluate whether we ought, on balance, to endorse these states and act so as to eliminate them from our psychology. But the state of disendorsing or desiring not to be in love seems different to me than the actual love.)

Of course there will be explanatory reasons of some type. And, it's not clear to me that love is the sort of state that tends to be undercut or responsive to our judgment that we ought to not be in that state. It seems to me, perhaps unfortunately, that love is often exactly the other way around. We sometimes recognize that we ought not to love someone, that we have no reason to do so, yet find ourselves unable to get ourselves out of this state without some indirect method (distracting ourselves, replacing them with another, etc.)

Now, as to organizing your life around a beloved, why isn't it enough to just cite your affection for them? I don't quite see why we don't just get reasons---outweighable, to be sure, but reasons---from the mere fact that we love someone. Of course, I also think that our whim to put cilantro on the moon gives us a massively outweighed reason to enroll in a space program.

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