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On the Objectivist view, what makes something count as a reason? When I say, "You have a reason not to beat your wife", why is that the case? Is it because you have a motive/set of preferences that contradict that action, or is it some external fact that gives you this reason independent of your preferences? I am thinking that maybe, on the Objectivist view, what it would mean to have a reason to do something is similar to what it means to value something: you are a being with certain goals and there are facts about how that goal can be achieved (which are external), and so neither "internalism" nor "externalism" about reasons gives the full picture. Is this correct?

This is the alternative as put forth by Bernard Williams (in his paper Internal and External Reasons) with regard to what reasons could be:

"The internal reasons thesis is a view about how to read sentences of the form “A has reason to ?”. We can read such sentences as implying that “A has some motive which will be served or furthered by his ?ing” (1981: 101), so that, if there is no such motive, it will not be true that “A has reason to ?”. This is the internal interpretation of such sentences. We can also read sentences of the form “A has reason to ?” as not implying this, but as saying that A has reason to ? even if none of his motives will be served or furthered by his ?ing. This is the external interpretation of such sentences, on which, according to Williams, all such sentences are false."

asked May 07 '12 at 01:06

ttime's gravatar image


edited Oct 22 '13 at 12:47

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

A reason is a fact informing and motivating a particular decision.

Consider when someone asks a "why" question: "Why did you take this exit?" "Because I'm hungry and there was a sign back there indicating food." The reasons are the facts informing and motivating a particular choice.

Explaining an action requires indicating reasons. Given a sufficient marshaling and integration of reasons, a particular action becomes the obvious choice.

When we say "there are good reasons not to do X," we are simply saying that there are facts, which if observed and properly considered, would motivate a rational person not to do X.

The above content regarding "internal" and "external" reasons isn't really relevant, except that a personal motive, unanalyzed, should not rationally be considered to be a reason for doing something. "Why did you hit her?" "I was mad at her." Here, an emotion is being presented as a reason. Yes, the emotion is a fact, but it is left unexamined, and so cannot, alone, be rationally used as a moral excuse for striking a woman. "She had a knife, and was cutting my thumb off." is an actual, moral reason.

Emotions, unexamined, cannot stand as reasons.

answered May 08 '12 at 09:34

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

When you say a "personal motive, unanalyzed, should not be considered a reason for doing something", do you mean that there are certain external facts that contribute to whether or not something is a reason? For example, certain facts about what kinds of consequences a certain course of action will take? E.g., I have a reason not to strike a woman both because I have some motive such as wanting to further my life and self-interest that contradicts this action (internal) and because striking a woman is IN FACT of such a nature that it is immoral and harms my self-interest (external)?

(May 09 '12 at 12:35) ttime ttime's gravatar image

I mean that facts are reasons, and motives (desires) as such are not.

Implicit in the idea of a reason is the choice to further one's own life, rather than destroying it. Without the choice to live, there is no such thing as a reason for any particular action.

Given the choice to live, certain facts constitute reasons for certain actions.

A motive, alone, isn't a reason. One must ask "why do I have this motive?" Irrational (reasonless) motives are possible.

The fundamental motive "to live", however, is presumed by all reasons. Without it, there are no reasons.

(May 09 '12 at 13:39) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

I see two aspects in this question: the linguistic aspect (meaning of "a reason" or "reasons"), and the views of Bernard Williams (1929-2003).

The linguistic issue centers around what people mean when they say something like, "Person 'A' has a reason (or reasons) to perform (or not perform) some action 'B'." Linguistically, people may mean either or both of the following:

(1) 'A' has "a motive/set of preferences that motivate (or contradict) that action," or

(2) There is some "external fact that gives 'A' this reason independent of his preferences." (I.e., it can serve his life if he understands and accepts it, even if he does not yet see such a connection.)

The linguistic issue is further complicated by the question's attempt to focus specifically on an Objectivist view, if any, of which meaning is endorsed (or not) by Objectivism. In everyday usage, the context normally makes clear (or ought to) which usage is intended by whoever is expressing the thought. Ambiguity could be a problem if the speaker is equivocating in some way essential to his overall view, in which case the speaker would need to sharpen the precision of his choice of words and/or clarify the context.

Objectivism, as far as I know, takes no position on the linguistic issue (since linguistics is really one of the special sciences), although Objectivism has a great deal to say about what constitutes a valid reason or not (for anything, not just human motives). "Reason" does, after all, have a wider "causality" usage beyond its applicability to motives. For example, it is common to observe that phenomenon 'X' happens because of some causal factor 'Y', with 'Y' considered to be the "reason" that 'X' happened or existed. Moreover, Objectivism is generally more concerned with "reason" as the name of man's distinctive cognitive faculty, rather than with the linguistic issue of what "having a reason" means. ("Reason" also has a verb or participle usage, of course, as in "ability to reason" and "the reasoning mind.")

The question also includes an excerpt purportedly written by, or summarizing the views of, Bernard Williams. When I checked the topic of "Bernard Williams" in Wikipedia for additional understanding, I found a clearer picture of what his views were. Here is a key excerpt from Wikipedia:

Reasons for action

Further information: Internalism and externalism#Moral philosophy

Williams's insistence that morality is about people and their real lives, and that acting out of rational self-interest and even selfishness are not contrary to moral action, is illustrated in his "internal reasons for action" argument, part of what philosophers call the "internal/external reasons" debate [in the "philosophy of mind"]. Philosophers have tried to argue that moral agents can have "external reasons" for performing a moral act; that is, they are able to act for reasons external to their inner mental states. Williams argued that this is meaningless. For something to be a "reason to act," it must be "magnetic"; that is, it must move people to action. But how can something entirely external to us—for example, the proposition that X is good—be "magnetic"? By what process can something external to us move us to act? Williams argued that it cannot. Cognition is not magnetic. Knowing and feeling are quite separate, he wrote, and a person must feel before they are moved to act. He argued that reasons for action are always internal, whether based on a desire to act in accordance with upbringing, peer pressure, or similar, and they always boil down to desire.

Another Wikipedia topic, "Internalism and Externalism," provides further insight. Here is a sampling:


There is also a distinction in ethics and action theory, largely made popular by Bernard Williams (1979, reprinted in 1981),[1] concerning internal and external reasons for action. An internal reason is, roughly, something that one has in light of one's own "subjective motivational set"---one's own commitments, desires (or wants), goals, etc. On the other hand, an external reason is something that one has independent of one's subjective motivational set. [...]

Bernard Williams (1981)[1] argues that there are really only internal reasons for action. Such a view is called internalism about reasons (or reasons internalism). [...]

Consider the following situation. Suppose that it's against the moral law to steal from the poor, and Sasha knows this. However, Sasha doesn't desire to follow the moral law, and there is currently a poor person next to him. Is it intelligible [arguming from "intelligibility" rather than chosen values] to say that Sasha has a reason to follow the moral law right now (to not steal from the poor person next to him), even though he doesn't care to do so [follow moral law]? The reasons externalist answers in the affirmative ("Yes, Sasha has a reason not to steal from that poor person."), since he believes that one can have reasons for action even if one does not have the relevant desire. Conversely, the reasons internalist answers the question in the negative ("No, Sasha does not have a reason not to steal from that poor person, though others might."). [I.e., stated positively, Sasha has no reason to steal.] The reasons internalist claims that external reasons are unintelligible; one has a reason for action only if one has the relevant desire (that is, only internal reasons can be reasons for action). The reasons internalist claims the following: the moral facts are a reason for Sasha's action not to steal from the poor person next to him only if he currently wants to follow the moral law (or if not stealing from the poor person is a way to satisfy his other current goals—that is, part of what Williams calls his "subjective motivational set"). In short, the reasoning behind reasons internalism, according to Williams,[1] is that reasons for action must be able to explain one's action; and only internal reasons can do this.

The Objectivist view (as I understand it) is that man's higher-level choices and actions are the result of his chosen values (often automatized) and of his continuous and ultimate choice to focus (or remain in focus) or not. In that respect, man's choices and actions are, indeed, the result of factors within man's consciousness. But Objectivism also holds that consciousness is consciousness of existence, and existence provides reasons for acting, too, insofar as existence is comprehended by man's consciousness. Man's ultimate value is his life (though he may not fully realize it explicitly), and man faces the alternative of life or death continually. Normally man will seek to remain alive, and that endeavor will drive innumerable further choices and actions by man in relation to all the other conditions of man's existence, as man comprehends and experiences them.

Regarding one who "wants to follow the moral law," Objectivism recognizes that everyone does, indeed, have a choice about what values and moral principles to accept and follow. Morality, in Objectivism, is "a code of values accepted by choice." All too often, philosophical arguments over internal or external "reasons" (and similar debates) tend to disregard the element of conscious choice and free will in man's motives and actions, treating man (in effect, if not always explicitly) as some kind of deterministic automaton (who, at best, can be influenced in action by physical force applied to him, just as the path of a billiard ball can be affected by collisions with other billiard balls).

If the question is, "What is the cause of human action," the answer is man -- first and foremost -- man acting in response to his conscious choices and comprehension of reality. But man's "reasons for acting" include external elements, as well, insofar as man is aware of them and chooses to comprehend their meaning and implications. Man also has the capacity to "act on whim" in a state of mental drift (out of focus), with disastrous consequences wherever thinking is needed for man's survival, as it always is eventually. Man learns not to act on whim, and survives; or he doesn't learn, and perishes.

answered May 10 '12 at 00:43

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Fantastic answer, thank you.

(May 10 '12 at 03:47) ttime ttime's gravatar image

This is an excellent answer. I sensed something was confused about Bernard Williams's view. His idea of "internal reasons" struck me as contradictory. One might refer to "internal causal factors" such as an emotion causing someone to cry, but a reason, as such as I see it, is a fact someone chooses to observe which, as a result, affects his action. A reason does not make me act some way. My observation of the reason, in the context of my situation and other knowledge, indicates to me the proper action.

(May 11 '12 at 00:27) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

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Asked: May 07 '12 at 01:06

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Last updated: Oct 22 '13 at 12:47